A lot of people believe that Japan is all about Tokyo. Even my own parents said “You cannot go to Japan and NOT see Tokyo right?” when I was planning a family holiday in 2013. While Tokyo is an amazing city which is full of things for everyone to enjoy, there is certainly a lot more to Japan than just Tokyo. Japan is a very big country (62nd in the world in terms of land size – larger than Malaysia, UK, Italy, Germany, and many more), has the 10th largest population in the world, and has 8 regions/46 prefectures. Unlike many parts of the world, Japan is unique in the sense that each prefecture has a distinctly different feel compared to others, and visiting many places will give you the sense of the diversity in the country.
A quick glance on google will show just how many different places there are which are worth visiting, ranging from the temples/shrines of Kyoto, to the forests of Hokkaido, the shopping arcades of Tokyo, and the tropical islands of Okinawa. Planning your trip can be very intimidating. Here are a few hints on how to plan your trip.
The first and most constraining factor in planning your trip is time. While some of us might select how long we want to travel for based on what we want to do while in Japan, most of us would do the opposite. A rule of thumb for me when traveling around Japan is to spend at least 2 nights in each city or town. Of course, this would vary according to the location. The likes of Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto would definitely warrant more nights, while small towns like Kurokawa and Ogimachi shouldn’t need more than one. If you end up planning to visit a new city or town every day, you might as well stay home and read about it online, as that is pretty much all that will sink in during your trip. Remember that intercity travel can take up a lot of time, and hence the famous saying of “Less is More” applies here.
2) WHAT TO SEE/DO?
Japan is a country where the modern city and historical culture integrates almost seamlessly together. As such, there is an abundance of things to do. However, it is impossible to do everything, and deciding between one option and another can be difficult. Personally I like to have a mix of everything (e.g. outdoor activities, historical places, shopping etc). However, some people might prefer shopping over everything else (and vice versa). In this case, you should focus more on areas that suits your interests. Despite this, I would still highly recommend also doing other things as well just to mix things up to keep things interesting.
As a minimum, I would usually recommend others to visit Kyoto and Tokyo to give a mix of history and modern civilization. If however you do not have money to travel between these two cities, then consider either a Kyoto/Osaka or Tokyo/Kamakura pairing. If you are there for longer, consider visiting more remote places like Shirakawa-go to have a taste of the countryside.
3) RESEARCHING ACTIVITIES
Some people would suggest doing an in-depth research, but I would highly caution against this. Researching too much could end up raising your expectation levels so high that you will ultimately be disappointed, or that it could ruin whatever surprise is waiting in store for you.
One of the websites I depended on a lot is Japan Guide. This guide lists popular attractions for each city/town within Japan. The description of each attraction is detailed enough to provide an idea of its novelty, yet not enough to ruin any further surprises. In addition, it features in-depth descriptions on means of transport, opening hours, entry costs etc for each attraction. This can help you plan out the most efficient means of getting around, and also how much you will need.
Another website is WikiTravel, which provides an even briefer summary of what is available in each area. In addition, there are often recommendations of each region’s local food specialty, places to eat/drink/sleep, transportation, discounts, and much more. This is also useful for researching places anywhere else in the world.
I also carried around a copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook throughout the whole trip. The guidebook tends to provide a bit too much information on each attraction, but its information on places to eat/drink/sleep/shop, transportation etc are much more top-notched than WikiTravel’s. In addition, there are also maps available which are very helpful. Good to keep around in the event that there is limited internet access, and when you need to urgently find transport or some food.
With regards to travel by bus/train/subways, be sure to visit Hyperdia. This site lists down several travel alternatives, and allows users to select their preferred option based on time, cost or number of transfers. It also allows users to select their preferred method of transport, and also deselect Nozomi Shinkansen options as JR Pass users are unable to make use of these trains.
4) HOW CONCRETE SHOULD MY PLAN BE?
It is often difficult to judge how detailed your plan should be. For example, if you book your accommodations prior to your trip, it often imposes a harsh time constraint. However, if you don’t do this, there will be additional stress during your trip, and you will probably end up spending valuable time looking for the next day’s accommodation rather than enjoying your travel. Personally, I prefer to book my accommodation well in advance. This not only relieves stress, but also helps me sort out a rough plan for the trip. I can throw some itinerary ideas together and get a general feel of whether a day would be too rushed, or whether I should add more activities in there. If you do not book ahead, you might end up in a situation very similar to the one I was in…
When deciding what to do on each day, you should pick a few areas which you definitely want to go to, and a few extra activities on the side. Be extremely conservative on how long you will spend at each area. This way, you will comfortably cover the important areas of the trip, and be able to do some additional things if you have time. Also remember to include meal times! Be as flexible as you can, so if the weather turns bad or some crucial transport isn’t running, you will have a backup plan and not waste a day.
DON’T OVER PLAN, BE FLEXIBLE, RELAX, AND HAVE FUN!
From all my past experiences, nothing ever goes to plan. If something didn’t go to plan, take a deep breath, smile, relax, take it on the chin as being just another travel experience, then decide on an alternative. You never know, your alternate plan might just end up being more fun than your original plan. Do not force yourself to follow “the plan” every minute of every day. You are there on a holiday, not on a school trip or a boot camp. Take things as you go. Take detours as you wish. Take breaks as you need. Most importantly, enjoy yourself!