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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Figuring out the Tokyo metro/subway network
Here is a map of all the train stations in Tokyo
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. They’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.
For tourists, Japan offers a tax refund scheme.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: