Montag, 20. Februar 2017

Planning my first trip to JAPAN!

In just two weeks I'll be going on my first trip to Japan - I can hardly believe it.
I've been dreaming of going there for about 15 years and now that I could finally save up and practise my Japanese I'm starting to get nervous. After all, it's a super long trip for someone who usually takes only one week off for a short visit of London.

Everything has been planned out. I love planning. I even make plans when I'm somewhere for just one day, even if I've been to the city several times before (...London, anyone?)!

A couple of things I collected while planning...

So although it might not work for you because you love being spontaneous, I'm going to start my favourite YouTube Vlogs, stare at the screen dreaming for days on end, cover my bed and desk and floors in pamphlets and magazines and get my excel and note book ready because...

Here's how a control freak like me makes TRAVEL PLANS!

So you want to go to Japan. What do you want to do there? What do you want to see? Where do you want to go? And for how long?

Get these questions sorted out.
I, for instance, will be going with a friend.
What I wanted to see was either cherry blossoms or Japanese maple. My friend preferred going in spring to see the cherry blossoms, so we decided to go in March.
(In Japan, cherry trees will bloom starting mid to late march depending on the region, the weather and of the species of the tree!)
Also, I really wanted to go to Okinawa (Japan's tropical islands - the Japanese Hawaii). And of course, going to a country that has so many different areas to see, we wanted to make lots of trips!

As it is the first time I'll be seeing Japan, my plan was to go for anywhere between two and three weeks. Both of us being able to get three weeks of annual leave, we set the approximate travel dates and I started planning.

>>> Priorities: set!

1. First things first: The flight.
Not going to lie, a long-haul flight to Japan is quite expensive for an average person.

For cheap tickets you should be willing to compromise:
  • Transfer.
    If you can accept a transfer flight, changing planes after the first three to six hours with a waiting time of another two to three before heading to Japan can result in a very long trip, but it can also be remarkably cheaper.
  • Budget airlines.
    Less seating space, maybe food you have to purchase on the plane and less baggage allowance, but you'll be flying for cheap.
  • Special offers with good conditions.
    If you prefer a certain level of service, try to subscribe to newsletters. Airlines will whip up special offers to their usual conditions - depending on the company, you'll have a spacious seat, nice in-flight entertainment, food that doesn't taste (and look) too bad and maybe you can even check in more than one piece of luggage! Think well if you want to save these 150 or 200 euros by accepting a little less comfort (after all, you just want to go there and see the world!) or if you want to splurge a tiny bit, go for the slightly more expensive direct flight but have the advantage of more space and more luggage allowance (because you KNOW you will be shopping. Right?). If you are lucky, a domestic flight within Japan will be included!
    Starting in late autumn until very early spring, most airlines have lower overall prices (usually holidays are more expensive, but other than that...)! For Japan, try to go in November or in mid January to mid March, where the prices are best, I think.
  • Book in advance.
    For Japan, as it is increasingly popular, you should keep an eye on the prices from 6 months in advance. If you are lucky, booking in a low season might result in a cheap campaign fare just two or three months ahead of your desired flight date, but if you want to see cherry blossoms or go in early summer, you might need to make your plans much earlier to receive cheaper tickets.
>>> Tickets: Booked!

I was lucky to get some tickets for a special campaign price. Not very cheap, but they were under 600 euros for a round trip from Germany which is quite nice for a direct flight.
Also it's good to be flexible. Planning the departure for a Sunday or even Monday instead of Friday might really help you find cheaper prices!

2. Itinerary.
As my friend had only one condition (going to Tokyo to meet a mutual friend there), the rest of the planning was left to me as long as it was within our travel budget.
What else could you wish for when you're able to plan your dream vacation?
So I started making lists of what to see and where to go, of interesting food or places.

On a calendar sheet, I made notes for specific dates/plans we had. Wanting to spend the last week of our vacation in Tokyo to meet our friend (and celebrate a birthday party), at least this part was clear. Travelling through Japan is easy with the JR pass, which lets you use all Japan Railways trains in the country for as little as approx. €240 for one week! So that went in the middle of the trip.
As the flight to the desired destination within Japan is included in our ticket price, it makes sense to switch planes directly after arriving in Japan, flying there and then getting another ticket to get back to one of the main islands.
Having a rough outline of the main route and the means of transport, main purchases could be made.

>>> Additional flight: Booked!
>>> JR Pass: Booked!

3. Time to get into detail.
After booking the return flight from Okinawa to the main islands, we had set dates for Okinawa and Tokyo. With different internet booking machines I compared prices and booked private rooms in hostels or with airBnB (an internet platform where people can offer anything from spare beds to their whole house for rent).
Having checked the availability and compared prices, I set a maximum budget per person per night to spend on a place to stay. I created an excel sheet so I could input the accommodation expenses and transport costs so that we would stay within the budget.

Booking early is the safest way. In bigger cities and apart from high touristy seasons, you might be lucky and find some places to stay at or even cheap hotel rooms in business hotels.
BUT it's safer to book your hotels/hostels/whatever in advance, unless you don't mind sharing a room with ten other tourists. As I have already mentioned, I am a huge control freak, so I had to have this part settled to keep myself from worrying.

Hostels in Japan are said to be generally safe and clean, and reading comments on the booking websites helps to choose something reasonable for your needs, I guess.

Extra points if the flat/room is near a train station and in walking distance of a place you wanted to visit nonetheless! 

>>> Places to stay: Okinawa and Tokyo booked!

After a lot of research and asking my friend for feedback on possible itineraries, I came up with a trip to get the most out of our rail pass. Shinkansen (super fast trains) can be used with the ticket and you will be able to commute between larger cities in a very short time!
Comparing this possible itinerary with room availability in the different cities, I went for a trip ending in a several day's stay in Kyoto, from where we would be able to visit a couple of other places. Some modifications here and there and everything was booked, including a traditional Japanese hotel with hot springs to relax after six days of train travel before heading to Tokyo.

>>> Places to stay: 100% booked!

Having your means of transport covered and a bed to sleep in for EVERY NIGHT (I have friends who travelled and booked one of the hotels for a day late... unless you are really adventurous, please be careful!), you can take your time researching about what to see, do and eat in the cities you are visiting. You can go shopping every single day, try to go hiking and find hidden-away shrines and natural hot springs or just wander around the less touristy streets to catch a glimpse of how it is to actually live in Japan.

>>> Main points: Done! TRIP PLANNING COMPLETE!

Of course, some small things are still missing...
  • Mandatory items items for a trip to Japan (or... well, far away)
  • Planning what to pack and "Baggage management" during the trip
  • Mobile data! (How to survive without your 4GB data flat)
  • Public transport within the cities while not using the JR Pass
  • Food expenses
Having done research for years and having lots of friends who provide me with useful information, I feel I'm kind of prepared for all of this.

Have you been to Japan? Do you have any hints or recommendations? Do you want me to pay attention to something in particular or write about a specific topic?
Please feel free to leave a message!

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