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Useful travel tips for Japan, and how to plan your itinerary better

I have finished publishing all the posts from my 2015 visit to Japan (okay, I forgot about one more but that’s not a very interesting one). It was a very memorable trip, like most first trips are, and I’ve already started getting questions from friends and people adding me on Facebook after coming across my Japan posts. So I thought I’d share some travel tips to help you plan your Japan trip better.

Japan tourist visa

For Indian citizens, Japan offers a 90-day tourist visa which has to be applied in advance. Mind you, it’s up to 90 days. How many days you are actually granted at the time of applying is entirely up to the visa issuing officer. For example, I was going to be in Japan for 12 days, gave all the documents proving the duration of my stay, and although I assumed I would be given a 30 day visa, the validity for my granted tourism visa was just 14 days. So if you need a longer stay visa, you will have to justify why you need so many days in a cover letter and include that in your application along with hotel/hostel bookings for those days.

Japan has one embassy in New Delhi and four consulates across India: Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru. As for cost, it’s just Rs. 500 — the cheapest visa I’ve had to pay for so far — and you needn’t even make use of a travel agent. You can submit your application directly at the consulate offices. It took less than a week for me to get my passport back with the visa granted. Of course, if you do not live in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai or Bangalore, you will have to use a reliable travel agent. But be careful which consulate you apply at. There is an area-wise jurisdiction for each consulate. For your state and which respective consulate you have to go to or apply at, see this page.

For list of documents you need to submit for a Japan tourist visa, refer to this page.

Best time to visit Japan

Well, this depends on what you would like to see. If your priority is the cherry blossom season, like it was for me, then  periodically search online when the estimated period for sakura in bloom would be for the following year. Historically, the sakura season has been between March and April. Refer to this map from Japan’s National Tourism Organization. Sakura trees bloom at different dates across the country. So pick your destination and find out when to arrive just in time to see the cherry blossoms there.

If you wish to head up north to take a bus through the famous snow corridor of Hokkaido, then April would be a good time for that as well.

Snow wall Hokkaido Japan
Image source: http://www.yokoso-japan.jp/en/86430.html

Most people recommend avoiding “Golden Week” beginning April 29. Four national holidays within seven days and if it’s near or placed well with weekends, the Golden Week becomes Japan’s busiest holiday season. Trains, flights, hotels, highways, attractions — expect all of that to be busy and priced higher.

During the summer months, from May to August, you have matsuri (festival) season. Plenty of festivals (centered around temples and shrines) across Japan, with many in Tokyo and Kyoto as well, making it convenient for tourists to witness the activities. Here is a calendar of Japan’s festivals.

If you wish to be in Japan during Tokyo Games Show (like I still want to), plan a trip in September. If you extend the trip to October, then you would be in time for autumn season in Japan. Although not as popular as the cherry blossom season, parts of Japan are just as beautiful during this time.

But remember, with seasons and weather, nothing is perfect and predictable. I chose my travel dates (I booked my flight just 40 days before flying) after thoroughly checking when sakura trees would be in bloom primarily in Tokyo, where I would spend most of my days. When I first visited Ueno park, the sakura trees were barely in bloom. By chance I decided to give it another visit just two days before departing and the cherry blossom scene then was just “wow”!

Best places in Tokyo to spot cherry blossom/sakura trees

Even if you don’t get the chance to explore cities and provinces outside of Tokyo, don’t worry. There are plenty of venues to see sakura trees in gorgeous settings right in Japan’s capital. The most popular venues in central Tokyo are Ueno Park (nearest station: Ueno), Shinjuku Gyoen (nearest station: Shinjuku-gyoemmae), Chidorigafuchi and the gardens of the Imperial Palace (nearest station: Kudanshita), Sumida Park — on either side of the Sumida river (nearest station: Asakusa), Yoyogi Park (nearest station: Harajuku), Asukayama Park (nearest station: Oji), Meguro River (nearest station: Nakameguro), and a few more you can find here.

Which airport to land at — Haneda or Narita?

Most international visitors to Japan fly to Tokyo first. Tokyo being one of the most important cities in the world, is serviced by two major international airports. The renovated Haneda Airport and Narita Airport – the largest in Japan. Haneda being Tokyo’s primary airport before Narita opened, is located within the city limits. Narita on the other hand is situated in neighbouring Chiba prefecture and the quickest way to commute between the airport and Tokyo city is using trains.

My Thai Airways flight landed in Haneda but the return flight was from Narita. This actually turned out to be a blessing because by the time my flight landed at Haneda, it was well past 8PM. By the time I was done with the airport formalities and took the subway out of Haneda, it was around 10PM. Point is, if you land in Tokyo late at night, it’s better to land at Haneda. From Haneda airport, taking the train to Tokyo station or Ueno is just a few stops away.

Narita to Tokyo will take at least an hour — by train. So imagine the time it takes to get out of the airport plus taking a bus or taxi from Narita late at night.

The other major entry point for international visitors is Kansai International, which is closest to Osaka prefecture. If you plan to begin your Japan trip in the south, say in Kyoto, then it’s better to fly in to Kansai if you get a flight option from your departing city. From Kansai, Osaka is 65 min by train and Kyoto is 75 minutes by train.

Getting from Narita airport to Tokyo and vice versa

There are many ways to get from Tokyo city to Narita airport. I’m not going to write about taxis because most of you wouldn’t be able to afford the $150-$200 is costs to hire an airport taxi.

Trains:

You have two main train services — JR Narita Express or N’ EX and the Kesei Skyliner. Both train journeys take about an hour. N’EX costs 3,020 yen to Tokyo and Skyliner costs 2,470 yen (and vice versa for getting to Narita). For all the stops and fares for N’EX, click here. For all the stops for the Skyliner, click here. Find which station you would prefer to get off at and choose the right train. The websites have the train’s respective schedules but both train services are available from early in the morning until 10PM. So my advice is to book a flight that lands in Narita no later than 9PM, preferably much earlier.

Trains to Narita airport
Left: N’EX / Right: Keisei Skyliner

I took the Kesei Skyliner to get to Narita because Ueno station (one of the starting points) was closer for me. If you book online, you can save 270 yen on the Skyliner’s one way fare. If you plan to purchase a JR Pass and land at Narita, then you can ride the N’EX for free using the JR Pass (once it has been activated).

Buses:

Here is the bus schedule from Narita airport. Bus is obviously cheaper but will take longer.

Taking the ‘bullet train’

When you are in Japan, you will obviously want to take the shinkansen, what the rest of the world calls “bullet train”. The shinkansen is your best and quickest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto and several other major cities. There are shinkansens at frequent intervals so no need to book a ticket in advance (unless it’s during a busy holiday period). Use Hyperdia.com to find out how much a journey costs and the timings for the trains. I used it to find train timings between a certain hour. Then I would finish my sightseeing or pack up and be at the train station to catch that particular train.

Tokyo to Kyoto Shinkansen cost
Bullet trains are a ‘must experience’ — but they’re not cheap!

If you plan to take the bullet train quite a bit — or in excess of 29,110 yen within a 7 day period — then get the JR Pass. The JR Pass allows you to take unlimited rides on Japan Rail’s trains (and some buses and ferries too) using it. It isn’t sold in Japan and you have to buy it from authorized online agents or a travel agent in your city prior to your arrival in Japan. You then exchange the voucher at the JR counter at any of these train stations, and you will get your JR Pass. But there are conditions. For example, the JR Passes are not accepted on the Nozomi trains, which travel at 300 km/hr. It’s mostly for the Hikari trains, which are slightly slower (270 km/hr). It’s the primary reason I didn’t buy the JR Pass. I wanted to ride the fastest train from Tokyo to Kyoto. By the way, you might want to avoid the Kodama trains because they stop at pretty much every station along the way.

Another thing to consider is cost. The JR Passes are available in 3 options:  ‎¥29,110 for 7 days,  ‎¥46,390 for 14 days and  ‎¥59,350 for 21 days. You can make use of the JR pass for valid rides any number of times during those set periods. But before buying a JR Pass, look at your itinerary and see how many times you will be riding a shinkansen during that period. For example, in 7 days, will you make a Tokyo-Kyoto return trip in addition to going somewhere else such as Hiroshima or Osaka? If so, then your total cost will easily be in excess of ¥29,110 if you were to pay cash. So here it makes sense for you to buy the JR Pass. As I said, use Hyperdia.com to calculate the fares for each of your train journeys. And then decide to buy to from sites JrailPass.com or JRpass.com.

In some cases, it maybe cheaper to fly a budget airline like Peach airlines than take the shinkansen for the same destination. So check all your transport options.

Warning: When on a shinkansen journey, do not try and get down in between stops to get snacks from the railway platform or to smoke (people do that in India). The shinkansen trains do not stop for long and arrive & depart with delays that at the most are in the seconds. The doors open and close automatically, so if you do not get back in the train, well… good luck! Just sit inside until you arrive at your final destination. You are allowed to bring food inside the trains.

Smoking room shinkansen Japan
There are smoking bays inside the train itself

Figuring out the Tokyo metro/subway network

Here is a map of all the train stations in Tokyo

Tokyo subway map metro

Find it intimidating and hard to figure out? That’s because it is. So what did I do? I installed the official Tokyo Subway mobile app, available for both iOS and Android. Currently it is available in English, Mandarin, Korean, Thai and Japanese. The app has a map of the metro network but the way I would use it is by finding out which train station was the closest to a particular attraction or place I want to go to (just research online). Then enter the ‘from’ and ‘to’ stations in the app and it will tell you which line (colour based) to take, which interchange station (if any) and how much the fare costs. I found the app to be super-useful.

PASMO or Suica?

There are two main IC (integrated circuits) cards for Tokyo’s public transportation. Pasmo Suica IC cardsThey’re both pretty much the same and can be used for trains, buses, and accepted as payments at convenience stores and several other establishments. I got a PASMO and it served me well in Tokyo. To get one, just look for the respective vending machines at Haneda or Narita airport. You can also buy them at any train station. At the end of your trip, if you wish to return the card and reimburse whatever balance is left on the card, you can do so at the offices as shown in this video…

… or return it using the PASMO/Suica vending machines itself.

If you have a JR Pass as well, then you can avail free trips on the JR Yamanote Line.

Other Japanese cities have their own IC cards but you don’t really have to buy one if you won’t stay at that city for long. You can still pay using coins and cash. These IC cards are just for convenience. The ticket fares aren’t any cheaper if you use them.

Shopping

For tourists, Japan offers a tax refund scheme.

Japan tax free logo
Just look for this logo outside participating shops

Of course, like all such schemes, you have to purchase above a certain amount. The eligible price is a total purchase of 10,001 yen and up from one shop. The tax refund portion foreign tourists get back is the consumption tax amount, which is 8%. There are two ways you can claim the refund: either the shop will deduct 8% at the time of purchase, or after purchasing, take your receipts to the tax exemption counter and receive the taxed portion in cash. Most department stores and shopping malls use the second method. Regardless, you will need to carry your passport and show it when asked.

100 yen shops
They’re basically the equivalent of America’s $1 store — but only more awesome! Of course there’s the Daiso chain of stores but you will find other 100 yen shops all over Japan’s major cities. I often found myself buying chocolates, snacks and other items that will surprise you. I picked up see-through umbrellas and gloves with spotted-padding (so I can use a camera or swipe my phone) from 100 yen shops. You will find translucent umbrellas being sold at convenience stores too but they cost a lot more.

Other shops I recommend checking out are clothing store Uniqlo (a lot cheaper in Japan) and electronics vendor Yodobashi Camera, whose prices I found to be often lower than Bic Camera and others.

Budgeting your trip

I spent well in excess of a lakh (Indian rupees) for my 12-day Japan trip. My Thai Airways flight cost Rs. 42,663. My hostels cost Rs. 1000 to 1700 per night at various hostels in Tokyo, Kyoto and Himeji (around Rs. 25k in total). Food costs can vary anywhere from 1000 to 3000 yen per day depending on where and what you eat, but never less than 1000 yen. I mostly ate at small eateries, fast food chains, picked up food items at supermarkets or convenience stores, and decent (but not too pricey) sushi shops. Some people recommend eating convenience store bento boxes to save money but I wouldn’t say they’re always cheaper than getting the same dish at a small eatery.

7-11 food Tokyo Japan
Maybe I’ll try out these convenience store meals on my next trip to see if they are any good

I took 3 shinkansen trips which cost me Rs. 33,770. In hindsight I could have bought the JR Pass to save Rs. 4k but initially, I thought I would try to take a cheaper option like an overnight bus from Himeji to Tokyo. Decided against it when I realized just how many hours would be wasted.

Other major expenses of mine were shopping. I shopped at various Uniqlo outlets quite a bit. There were many store sales going on when I was in Tokyo. Zara, H&M (bought stuff from here too), Forever 21 (also shopped) and other brand stores I checked out had some items on sale at prices that were shockingly low. I also checked some outlet stores in Odaiba (I’ll blog about it after this post) but I honestly didn’t find any deals that were worth the trouble of going all the way there.

I could have shopped much more but I could only carry so much in my suitcase, which had gotten quite heavy by the time I left Japan! Plus, even if I had thousands more to spend, it wouldn’t have sufficed as there is so much awesomeness in Japan to spend on.

Oh, and contrary to what you might assume, electronics isn’t very cheap in Japan. I found prices of cameras and Macbooks to cost more than the US and only slightly less than what they cost in India. That said, you do find certain models and gadgets that you won’t even find anywhere else besides Japan!

You will need to set aside a few thousand yen just for commuting via trains. Even local train rides can rack up quite a bit if you don’t plan your sightseeing routes well enough. 180 yen here and 320 yen there, it all adds up.

Carry lots of cash

Whatever you expense may be, be prepared to carry a lot of cash. Japan, despite all its technological advancements, is still very much a cash-based society. Credit cards are accepted at most branded stores and major restaurants but the preference is cash over card at most shops. Many hostels I booked barely took an advance during the online reservation, but it’s only because I had to pay the full amount in cash upon check-in.

One thing to note about ATMs in Japan is that many Japanese bank ATMs will not accept debit cards issued outside Japan. Thankfully, 7-Eleven (the largest convenience store chain) has over 23,000 ATMs in Japan that accept all the usual debit cards. Japan Post Offices also have ATMs that accept international ATM cards. Most major cities have branches of international banks with ATMs that accept foreign-issued ATM cards as well. One reason why I hold on to my Citibank account is the fact Citibank is present at most major cities in the world. I withdrew money twice using Citibank ATMs – once using my HDFC debit card (Visa)  and another from my Citibank debit card (Mastercard) — with a very nominal processing fee (100-200 yen per transaction, I don’t quite remember). But no more expensive than exchanging currency.

As for foreign currency, US dollars would be easiest currency to exchange, and there are plenty of money exchange centers and bank branches around to do that in Japan. But these exchange offices won’t be open 24/7 so ensure you have money exchanged before they close in the evenings.

Plan your trip well

This isn’t exclusive to Japan but it goes without saying. Visit official websites of attractions to see if they are open, when they open, and how to get there. I made the mistake of visiting Himeji Castle just a few days before the main tower’s grand re-opening. Had I known about it prior, I probably would have skipped visiting Himeji and gone to Osaka instead.

As mentioned above already, plan your bullet train rides and other journeys within Japan well. It could save you thousands of yen in transportation costs.

Learn a bit of Japanese too if you can. Learning the basics, especially how to say numbers, will always come in handy. English isn’t widely spoken by the locals and it gets harder outside of Tokyo. At least learn to read Hiragana and Katakana scripts (it’s easy, trust me). Many station signs and other basic words can be read if you know at least the easy two out of three scripts in the Japanese language. Kanji is tough to learn so I’ll leave that up to you. In major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto (and for that matter at most major train stations), you will find English mentioned on sign boards as well. In the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Japan is pushing for more English signs all over so this should improve.

Other tips

1) When booking hotels, you will often come across Ryokans. These are the traditional Japanese-style hotels in which you will be sleeping on tatami mats placed on the floor. Go for it if you would like to experience something uniquely Japanese, but it’s not for everyone.

2) If you see some bullet train stations stopping at Shin-(name of place), do not assume that’s the main train station of that city or prefecture. For example, Shin Osaka (literally translates to ‘New Osaka’) and Osaka are two separate stations.

Osaka station to Shin Osaka station

Shin-Osaka station is where the shinkansen trains stop. From there, you will have to transfer to the local train line to get to Osaka station, which is the main train hub of Osaka city. So when using Hyperdia to check shinkansen routes, look out for the ‘Shin’ stations.

3) DO NOT TIP. Tipping is not an accepted custom in Japan. Restaurants do not expect it and if you leave money, they will only return it to you 🙂

4) Use the Google Maps app on your phone. It was super handy in guiding me to places. I used it daily and it was a total time saver especially when I found it hard to read some of the Japanese signs.

5) You may find it hard to get a local network phone SIM, so what I’d recommend is just getting a internet data SIM card. You’ll find them at electronics store and I’ve written about it in my post on Yodobashi Akihabara. Mobile internet speeds are so good in Japan that it’s all you’ll really need for communicating with family back home.

6) Do not pay more than 249 yen for bag of green tea Kit Kat or the cheesecake flavour. I’ve seen it as low as 199 in Harajuku. Please don’t fall for tourist trap malls or wherever you see busloads of Chinese tourists being brought to. Some of those shops charge 500 yen for the same stuff.

7) Vegetarian food in Japan. Look, it’s going to be a bit of a struggle — especially if you are looking for strictly vegetarian food. Read through these blog links to be prepared: 1, 2, 3, 4. If you’re Indian and wish to just play it safe and eat only Indian vegetarian food, there are plenty of Indian restaurants in Tokyo.

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That’s all I have to say for now. I’ll update this post if at all I have anything more to add. If you have any other questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll try my best to help. But please do not ask me to plan your entire trip itinerary, I do not do that for free.

Read my 2015 Japan travel series:

Japan 2015: Landing in Tokyo… and using a communal bath for the first time

Japan 2015: Going to Akihabara, and spending way too much time in Yodobashi Akiba

Japan 2015: Walking around Akihabara and Ginza

Japan 2015: Riding a bullet train for the first time, Tokyo to Kyoto

Japan 2015: Kyoto – Nishi & Higashi Honganji, Shijo street, and Gion

Japan 2015: Kyoto – Nishiki market and Teramachi

Japan 2015: Kyoto – Fushimi Inari-taisha, and climbing to the mountain top

Japan 2015: Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji and Kiyomizu Dera temple

Japan 2015: Kyoto – Gion Corner Cultural Show

Japan 2015: Kyoto – Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

Japan 2015: Kyoto – Monkey Park in Arashiyama

Japan 2015: Kyoto Station, and arriving at Himeji by shinkansen

Japan 2015: Himeji Castle, and the unexpected air show

Japan 2015: Nadagiku Shuzo Sake Brewery, leaving Himeji for Tokyo — and my last bullet train ride

Japan 2015: Nakamise street, Senso-ji temple, and Ueno Park sakura at half-bloom

Japan 2015: Ueno Zoo – pandas, a lonely polar bear, and more

Japan 2015: Shibuya – the busiest crossing in the world, and home to a loyal dog

Japan 2015: Nishi-Shinjuku — views from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building sky deck

Japan 2015: Shopping in Shinjuku, and exploring Kabukicho

Japan 2015: Denboin garden, near Sensoji Temple

Japan 2015: Cherry blossom celebrations by Sumida River

Japan 2015: Boat ride to Odaiba; giant Gundam statue at DiverCity Mall

Japan 2015: Cherry blossoms at Tokyo Imperial Palace east garden

Japan 2015: Cherry blossom sightings at Shinjuku Gyoen

Japan 2015: Harajuku on a Sunday – Meiji shrine and Yoyogi Park

Japan 2015: Harajuku at night — Takeshita Street

Japan 2015: Visiting Akihabara a second time, because why not?

Japan 2015: Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Ueno Park

Japan 2015: Rikugien garden’s weeping cherry blossom tree

Japan 2015: Getting to Hakone; Lake Ashi sightseeing cruise

Japan 2015: Hakone ropeway; onsen at Hotel Green Plaza

Japan 2015: Ōwakudani sulphur springs, views of Mt. Fuji — and last night in Tokyo

Japan 2015: Getting to Narita Airport, final thoughts, and flying an Airbus A380 for the first time

Air Asia not-as-advertised

How to travel smart — or in other words, how I travel

Quite smug of me isn’t it? 😛

I like to think I travel smart whenever I go abroad or even travel within India. Of course, it’s not that I haven’t made my share of mistakes, but I’ve learnt from it. Friends and readers alike contact me seeking travel advice all the time, so since I am planning a trip to a dream destination of mine since childhood — Japan — I figured I might as write down the process of how I go about it.

When to travel

I always plan my journeys around events, festivals, concerts, etc. besides just considering the seasons. The reason I do this is because it makes my trip all the more special and I get to see something most tour packages may never be able to include. I’ve been to Thailand when Loi Krathong festival was on, timed my trip to Macau just so I could see my favourite K-pop group live and visited Singapore a second time around F1 week. Timing your vacation around a festival that is unique to a particular country is an experience that makes your vacation a lot different from the norm. Not to Cherry blossom Japanmention the unique photographs and memories you take home. So for my Japan trip, my hope is to be in the country during the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) festival from April-end through May.

Planning your itinerary

Now this depends on your interests, and mine largely revolves around photography. Photography also depends on factors like events, best time of day to shoot and most of all — good weather. So although I keep a schedule, I shift unreserved activities around based on the weather conditions.

How to save money when making flight bookings

Every online travel agent brags about the offering the “lowest fares” — but in my experience, there is no one website that consistently gives you the lowest rates. There’s always the chance a brand new entrant to online space offers the lowest rates compared to the established peers but more often than not, the new website is simply making less profits (or zero margins) in order to give you the lowest rates. This is just a customer retention tactic used by many new businesses as soon as they launch just to win customers over. A year or two later, expect the once ‘new’ website to offer you rates comparable to the established websites. No vendor can stay unprofitable for long.

So use websites like SkyScanner for price comparisons, flight timings and average rates, or visit every single brand — Yatra, MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip, GoIbibo, etc. and see what their best rates are. Trust me, I’ve used most of them and no one website has consistently given me the “lowest” rates every single time.

You may even visit an airline’s own website. The advantage of using the airline’s own website is that they give you more options for the same ticket. Meaning, many airlines have different pricing tiers on a flight ticket. The lowest price quoted on an airline’s website will be more of less the same quoted on websites like Yatra and the like. But it’s low because they strip away privileges like air miles, the ability to edit information after booking and changing dates for free. Pay for the higher tier and the airline will offer benefits like the freedom to change name and dates without incurring any further charges, and throw in the air miles for your frequent flyer card. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to book like this when your dates are not set, because third party vendors often charge a hefty fee for re-scheduling or cancellations.

As for budget airlines like AirAsia, know that many a times the rates advertised are often excluding taxes, surcharges, baggage fees and without food. Go step-after-step and you may end up with a price no better than what is quoted by premium carrier. Also check for undisclosed fees and other inconveniences like the lack of connecting flights and poor timings.

Air Asia not-as-advertisedOnce decided on a flight, I don’t book right away. I instead scout for deals. Like coupon/discount codes. One trick I use (and many booking portals facilitate this), is make a search query on a particular website — say for example, Cleartrip, and select a flight but don’t buy it just yet. Close the page and continue browsing. If you enabled cookies in your browser, it won’t be long will before you start seeing Cleartrip ads being served on Google AdSense on the pages you browse soon after. Many a times, Cleartrip (and it’s also happened with GoIbibo) will entice you with an ad flashing a voucher code. It’s like they push coupons to lure you back in to ‘close the deal’. Obviously use the coupon code that way or just search online on coupon websites to get an addition discount.

Sponsored ads
For example, these are sponsored ads I got served on SkyScanner.co.in after I did my searches on the other websites. You sometimes find coupon deals being served specifically to you this way.

Book hostels for cheaper accommodation

In an expensive country like Japan, you have no choice but shell out when in major cities like Tokyo. But expensive city or not, I often enjoy staying at good hostels. For my hostel bookings, I largely use Hostels.com or HostelWorld.com. But no matter how fancy a hotel or budget a hostel I stay in, what matters to me most is — location (besides cleanliness and Wi-Fi)! How do I figure out if the location works for me? Well, most hotel websites will have a map embedded showing you where the hotel/hostel is located. I take the extra step by going to  Google Maps and getting a satellite view of the location. From there, I check what’s near the hotel. Like which is the nearest metro station, are there many eateries nearby so that I can get some food even if I were to come back late at night, convenience stores, etc. I also check how far a place of accommodation is to the attractions I want to see in a particular city or place.

Hostel to Tokyo skytree
For example, the hostel Khaosan Tokyo Smile is only a 1 km away (a few minutes walk) from the Tokyo Skytree attraction and the Tokyo Skytree station itself

The reason why I don’t mind spending a bit more to stay close to an attraction is because staying somewhere cheap far away is pointless when you consider you have spend much more on taxi rides to get to a place you intend to see. So you don’t just waste money, you also waste time — which is precious on shorter trips. From a my research thus far, I have decided to stay somewhere near Akihabara station. From Akihabara, many of Tokyo’s most popular attractions are no more than 15 minutes away by train.

Money exchange and ATM

From my research of Japan, many ATMs aren’t available 24hrs… which I found to be quite weird. None the less, being a Citibank account holder has many privileges and one of the best is the fact Citibank has its own ATM network and office branches in most of the world’s cities. Tokyo is no exception. Of course, I don’t need to rely on Citibank’s own ATMs, as even 7-11 (a chain of convenience stores) has 24/7 ATMs that accept international cards. Although I haven’t been able to confirm if there will be any withdrawal fee if I use my India-issued Citibank card in Japan, I hope they extend the ‘no withdrawal fee’ benefit I get to enjoy in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong as a Citibank account holder. This saves me the trouble of having to buy US dollars from India and convert them in Japan. One tip for money exchange centers: the more expensive the location looks, the worse the rates being offered by an exchange center located there.

Getting around

In cities such as Tokyo, do as the locals do — use the train. Tokyo – and Japan in general- has one of the best rail networks in the world. After all, Japan is home to the Shinkansen, or the bullet trains. You may get a map of the train network, but a smarter way to go about town is to download the many free apps available for smartphone. Both iOS and Android users can download apps showing you the network of Tokyo’s train stations. You can even use certain websites to calculate taxi fares to and fro destinations. Of course, when in Japan, you can’t help but not ride the bullet train. So for that, it’s best to get a JR Pass (JR = Japan Rail) as like many metro cards, the rates are lower if you use them. Some JR Passes even allow for unlimited rides at a set fee.

Language

I always learn a few phrases in a foreign language whenever I go abroad because it’s rude to expect everyone to speak English. In Japan, English is hardly spoken by the majority of Japanese so it is important to learn a few phrases in their language before arriving. And by learning, I mean reading and speaking.

Fortunately for me, I have been studying Japanese for a few years now. (I wasn’t kidding when I said Japan has been a dream destination for a while)

Food and shopping

I’m a foodie, and I’m a non-vegetarian from Kerala, which means I’m okay with pretty much everything! Beef, seafood, chicken, pork and a whole lot more. Food in Japan isn’t as expensive if you eat the food the locals eat, like ramen, noodle soup and such. Of course, I’ve already listed out a few Indian restaurants just in case I miss the taste of our desi masala.

I yearn to some rice burgers in Japan

You can check restaurant menus online as many restaurants list prices. This way you can budget your food spend accordingly. Be prepared though. Non-veg thali meals cost on average Rs. 700-900! Oh, and for vegetarians, good luck!

Baggage

I try to travel as light as possible. Two bags at the most. One, my Kata camera backpack that holds my laptop and camera equipment, and the other, a sports bag with trolley wheels. I specifically use trolley wheel bags as they are easy to walk around with in places where you have clean, leveled roads and pavements. I also don’t carry too many clothes because I always end up buying some new t-shirt or two whenever I’m abroad, so I just wear that in addition to the clothes I brought with me. I also carry a detergent sachet to wash clothes by myself wherever I am allowed to do so. If not, I just hand my clothes over to a laundry service.

To save space and weight, try and carry small tubes of toothpaste, small bars of soap (if needed), thinner towels and smaller bottles of perfume. Like when I usually listen to music, I prefer headphones, but when travelling, I carry ear phones which take up a fraction of the space. I’m also thinking of carrying a fold-able bag inside my sports bag just incase I end up buying too much.

Shopping

I always keep my shopping for the last few days. This way I don’t end up spending too much cash early on, I can go around scouting the best deals and find where goods are sold cheaper, and I don’t have to lug around more luggage if I have to shift hotels or travel to other destinations within a country. For example in Japan, I looked online and found electronics aren’t that much cheaper and a Macbook Air costs the same in Bic Camera (a popular electronics chain) as it does on Flipkart. But I did find out about Takeya, a mall in Tokyo filled with outlet stores of designer fashion brands!

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So that’s the gist of how I go about planning my trip. Hope many of you found this to be a rather ‘smart’ way to travel. Just pick another destination and apply the same tips. I for one still have a lot more research to do on Japan before I set off. That… and money 🙁

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