This post is the first in a Japan series.
It’s 4:00 in the morning and I’m wide awake and crafting (to use the word liberally) this missive because In 20 years of traveling I’ve never succeeded in overcoming jet lag and my body still thinks it’s 6:00 p.m. Japan Standard Time. About nine hours from now and I am going to CRASH. Left for Tokyo two weeks ago. Just got back.
Ok, so here’s what you need to know if you’re going to travel to Japan.
HOW TO TRAVEL TO JAPAN (ONE TRAVELER’S ADVICE BASED ON ONLY ONE TRIP TO JAPAN)
PICK YOUR DATES
Here’s a detailed guide of weather in Japan by month. April appears to be the best month to travel to Japan because the cherry blossoms are blooming (although you’ll contend with many other travelers), followed by mid-to-late May and September. Winters are cold. Summers are hot and humid.
My travel to Japan included Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa, Mount Koya and Kyoto the last week of June and the first week of July, Japan’s rainy season. I was happy with my timing. I didn’t share the country with hordes of other tourists. I encountered rain in Tokyo but it wasn’t anything an umbrella couldn’t handle, I ran into intermittent showers in Kanazawa but preferred them to the alternative of oppressive heat, and the weather my few days in Kyoto was perfect. A gray drizzle actually added to the atmosphere in moody Nikko (a day trip from Tokyo) and mysterious Okunoin Cemetery on Mount Koya.
WHERE TO GO
I can comment only on the cities I visited during my two weeks (and I will elaborate on each of them in this series of posts). With the exception of getting to/from Mount Koya (which entailed riding a subway, a funicular and a bus) my Japan rail pass was all I needed to travel easily between cities and within Tokyo.
- Five nights/four days in Tokyo, including a day trip to Nikko was one day too long. I thought I would love Tokyo as I loved compact Hong Kong, but it was so massive that I couldn’t get my arms around it, or feel like I remotely understood the city. I’m happy with my day trip to Nikko though
- One night/one day in charming Takayama was perfect
- Two nights/two days in Kanazawa was a little long, but one day would not have been enough. I’m happy that I visited this city but never experienced a “wow!” moment
- My one night/one day on Mount Koya was the highlight of the trip
- Four nights/four days in Kyoto was one day too long. Sure I missed plenty of temples, but by this point in the trip I was templed-out
P.S. I do tend to travel wide instead of deep and I realize that’s not everyone’s bag. Also, when I travel solo (as I did this trip) I need to keep moving or I grow a little sick of myself.
Click here for visa information. U.S. citizens can travel to Japan for 90 days without a visa, although I had to show proof of return to the Japan Airlines ticketing agent at O’Hare before I left.
The voltage in Japan is 100 volt (U.S. is 120V and Europe is 230V) and the outlets are identical to ungrounded (2-pin) American outlets. I had no problems with using my curling iron, MacBook, and iPhone/camera battery/headphone chargers without a converter. I used only hotel hairdryers.
WHAT TO GET BEFORE YOU GO
- Buy a Streetwise map if you’ll be navigating Tokyo
- Download the Google Translate app, which translates both the written and spoken word in your language to Japanese (and many other languages) and vice-versa. I didn’t end up using the app in Japan because it requires WiFi service (and I usually left my MiFi back at the hotel), but a Japan Railway ticket vendor once successfully used it to facilitate our transaction
- If you’re traveling much between cities buy a Japan Rail exchange voucher to redeem upon arrival for a Japan Rail Pass before you go (you can’t purchase it in Japan). My JR East pass cost me $444. I will write an entire post later in this series on using Japan Rail
- Rent a pocket WiFi (MiFi) from Global Advanced Communications. WiFi was available at most or all properties at which I stayed (including the Buddhist monastery on top of a mountain) but I don’t feel secure using hotel networks and I wanted coverage when I was traveling on the train or dining at a restaurant. For $100, Global Advanced Communications shipped a MiFi, charger, and back-up battery to my hotel in Tokyo and I enjoyed interruption-free service for two weeks. Postage-paid return packaging was provided so I left my equipment with the front desk when I departed
- A travel umbrella if your travel to Japan is in June or July
- Have directions to your hotel, or the name of it, written in Japanese
ATMs and banks are not as plentiful in Japan as they are in the U.S. but ATMs can be found in 7-Eleven stores in cities of any size. Many restaurants, shops and even train stations will not accept cards. Stash some cash on you — Japan is extremely safe.
CUSTOMS, ETIQUETTE, & OTHER STUFF
- There’s no tipping (and yet service is excellent), which is refreshing
- The Japanese rarely jay-walk. I curbed my impatience around them and waited for the lights to turn green
- Eating is permitted on long-distance trains, but no one eats (or talks on their cell phone) on the city trains. Pick-up after yourself on the long distance trains before exiting
- When paying, place your money on a tray. Your change will be handed back to you
- Avoid traveling on the city trains with luggage during rush hours
- Shoes are usually removed when entering a temple, home, monastery, ryokan or any room with a tatami (rice or straw) mat. In most cases you would then change into slippers that are provided, and if you use the restroom you would change again into the slippers provided at the restroom door
Have recommendations from your own travel to Japan? Please share.