Traveling Tip 4 – Preventing Yourself from Starving!

For some people, finding food to eat while on holiday can be a chore. For others, it can be an experience by itself. Whichever way you feel about it, finding and ordering food can appear to be a very daunting task, especially when you have no idea what to expect or have difficulty communicating in the local language. Here are a few hints on how to get by without starving to death!

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1) FIND RESTAURANTS/CAFES WITH DISPLAYS

You might have come across a local Japanese restaurant in your home country that uses wax models to show how each dish looks. Would it be a shock to you if you found out that a large number of restaurants in Japan actually do have such displays? While you might not know exactly what each dish contains, you can have a pretty good idea of what to expect. One issue however is that you might not be able to read the name of the dish, and might have difficulty conveying to the waiter/waitress the actual dish you are after. I highly recommend bringing a pen and a small notebook and write down the name of the dish as closely as possible, then show it to the waiter/waitress to order.

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(The wax model on the left was a pretty good representation of the curry udon!)

2) ASK IF THERE IS AN ENGLISH MENU

A large number of restaurants, particularly those in larger cities or touristy areas, would have English menus available. You can try asking for one in English, though I would recommend trying Japanese instead as part of the experience. To call the waiter/waitress, you should start off by calling out “Sumimasen!” (“excuse me!”). Follow this up by asking “Eigo no menyuu ga arimasuka?”. If they do, he/she would usually reply “Hai” followed up by something along the lines of “Chotto matte kudasai” (“please wait a moment”), or “iie, sumimasen” (“no, sorry). Be understanding if they do not have an English menu (or one in a language from your home country). After all, not all cafes and restaurants in your home country would stock a menu in Japanese.

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3) FIND RESTAURANTS WITH PICTURE MENUS

Like with some restaurants in your home country, some in Japan might have a menu which contains pictures of how your dishes might look like. This is especially true for Family Restaurants along the likes of Denny’s, Gusto, and Royal Host. These places would usually have a copy of the menu available at the counter or on the front door, so you can have a quick look before being seated.

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4) EXPLORE CONVENIENCE STORES AND SUPERMARKETS

If you are okay with having meals on the go and not having a proper sitting dinning experience, an option would be to explore convenience stores and supermarkets. Many would have a large range of reasonably priced bento (takeaway meals), onigiri, sushi, bread, takoyaki etc. Bakeries are another option.

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5) THE LAST RESORT – FAST FOOD

Worst comes to worst, there are always fast food joints. Personally I am against having burgers in foreign countries when there is so much local food to enjoy. However sometimes when I am too tired or in cases where it is more convenient, there is an abundance of fast food to fall back on. A popular type of Japanese fast food is gyudon (beef bowls). There are many establishments which sell gyudon, including the likes of Yoshinoya and Sukiya, and are usually located near train stations. Many of these places would have picture menus available. An added bonus is that these places are usually very cheap, though don’t expect it to be a well balanced meal (notice the lack of greens).

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If you wish to go for Western style fast food, at least go to a Japanese chain like Mos Burger or Lotteria. McDonals and KFC are available, but if you can get them in your home country, why bother eating them in Japan? Ordering can be tricky, as even though some places may have English menus, the cashier may not understand what you are asking for. Most places would usually have a small menu at the counter, which allows foreigners to point to the meal they want. Others would have a number associated with the meal, so stating the number to the cashier is sufficient. To say this in Japanese, it is “(meal number in Japanese) ban kudasai” (holding up your fingers might help too). The cashier will likely then ask if you want the “set” (listen to the world “setto” – this has the same meaning as “combo” in most places in the world), to which a simple “hai” or “iie” is sufficient.

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6) …WHY IS THERE A VENDING MACHINE HERE?

At times, you may find that there are vending machines at the front of the shop which you need to purchase your meal tickets from before you sit down at a table. This is to improve efficiency and reduce the number of staff required. Most will likely have a picture of the food item which you want to purchase. Others will have the name of the food item, in which case you should note down the number of the dish you want to order before using the vending machine.

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7) SO MANY THINGS I WANT TO TRY…BUT WHERE CAN I TRY IT?

Finding a place that sells a certain type of you that you want to try can be quite difficult if you are going off the bat. Common food like ramen, gyudon, and general types of donburi (rice bowls) are easy to find. However, finding a good okonomiyaki store, a cheap but good place for Kobe beef, or a nearby family restaurant can be much harder. Thankfully, being as efficient a country that Japan is, they have a website called Gurunavi. There is an English version which allows you to find the perfect place you are looking for, shows a map of where the establishment is located, and also a general price range so that you have an idea of how much to spend. There is also an option to select only vegetarian food, which will be helpful to some. Some of the listings also have a menu available in English. If you can read Japanese, switch to the Japanese language option, as it is usually more indepth on there. Of course, Gurunavi does not list every restaurant, and sometimes doing a quick search online may yield better options. Alternatively Japan-Guide, WikiTravel and Lonely Planet have some recommendations as well.

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DON’T WORRY – JUST EAT!

It is not as daunting to find and order food in Japan compared to many other foreign places in the world. Just chill out and relax. There is always an option that will suit you perfectly. Remember to bring pen and a small notebook and you should be fine. Even if you end up stuffing up your order and ending up with something you do not want, you may end up enjoying your experience more because of it. Be adventurous and have a great time.

no-face-food-spirited-awayBRING ME FOOD!!!

Traveling Tip 3: Choosing your accommodation

A daunting task for planning any trip, whether it be in Japan or elsewhere in the world, is deciding on your accommodation. While many people have their own criteria which they used to select accommodation, there many be other things as well which you might not have considered. This post looks to highlight factors which may influence your decision.

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^…P.S. Before we start, check that your accommodation is not haunted…^

1) COST

The first criteria for many would be the cost of accommodation. If you are likely to be spending most of the day out and about, there is no need to spend tens of thousands of yen on an expensive ryokan. Hostels are likely to be the cheapest option available. If you do not want to be in shared dormitories, private rooms are usually reasonably priced (between 2,000 to 3,500 yen per person). If all you need is a bed and bathroom facilities, hostels are more than sufficient. Other reasonably priced options are capsule hotels and minshukus.

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(Cost for a hostel is approximately 3,000 yen per night per person in a triple room, which is significantly cheaper than a lot of hotels)

2) PROXIMITY TO TRANSPORT/EASE OF ACCESS

The criteria which I personally used the most is accessibility to the accommodation, and how close it was to any nearby transport hubs. Generally, we tried to stay in places within 10-15 minutes walk of transport. Any further than that and we would eliminate it as an option, as we did not want to spend too much time travelling between the transport hub back to our accommodation. In addition, some accommodation might require long trips to reach, such as an extra bus or train ride which might end up wasting 30 minutes of your time per trip. The additional travel cost of these trips might make it more pricey overall compared to a more expensive accommodation option that does not require any special transport.

Direction(There are usually plenty of options near train stations. K’s House Kyoto for example is just a short 1 km walk away from Kyoto station)

3) FACILITIES

List down the critical facilities which you want in all your accommodation, then ensure that your accommodation has these facilities before you book. Essentials like toilets and showers are generally a must. I personally would prefer if it has free WIFI so that I can plan transport routes the night before, but it is not a ground-breaker if it doesn’t. Another essential is whether it has laundry facilities (or is in close proximity to an area that does).

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(Most places would have a listing on facilities available)

4) NOVELTIES

Sometimes we selected our accommodation based on novelties rather than any other criteria. For example, there were cheaper alternatives in Kurokawa, but we ended up going with the more pricey Yamamizuki. Even though the cost is almost 5-6 times more than what we would have paid for a hostel, the experience of staying at this lovely ryokan, the extravagant meals they provided and the extremely efficient and friendly service made it worth it. Of course if you aren’t actually going to be staying at the ryokan much to enjoy it, then I would definitely recommend a cheaper option.

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(Yamamizuki Ryokan in Kurokawa cost almost 17,000 yen a night per person, which cost 5.5 times that of hostels. But man was it worth it! The cost also includes 2 meals in addition to free use of the onsen facilities.)

5) ACCOMMODATION HOMEPAGES AND ONLINE REVIEWS

Most accommodation options will have their own webpage. It is always good to have a quick look to gauge your general impression of the place. Of course, in the era of photoshop and enhanced photography, there is a chance that what you see is not what you get. But would you rather stay at a place that at least tries to look good, or one that doesn’t even put in the effort and looks like a complete dump? I would usually do this to select a handful of potential places, but this would not be the critical criteria I would use in selecting accommodation. I would usually back up my preliminary research by looking at some online reviews. There were several well known hostel chains operating at a cheap price, but a quick search on Tripadvisor or Hostelworld will tell of the many horror stories that is associated with these places (e.g. BED BUGS). It is always good to check out these websites to see other people’s opinion (read a mix of good and bad reviews). It is no point saving a few hundred yen if you are going to end up with bed bug problems for the rest of the trip!

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6) MAKING YOUR TRIP EASIER

Sometimes you may need to get that early morning flight, or might only be arriving in town very late at night. In these cases, it might be best to pick the most convenient accommodation option. This was what we did when we wanted to get from Itami Airport to New Chitose Airport. Rather than wake up early in the morning, and rushing to Itami Airport from Kyoto before luggage check-in time, we went the night before and stayed at Osaka Airterminal Airport which was located at Itami Airport itself. This reduced the stress of having to rush to the airport early in the morning.

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(If I could turn back time, I would still choose to pay 2,100 yen more to stay at a hotel next to Itami Airport, rather than be completely stressed out making sure all of us were ready at 6:30am to get to the airport and hope that none of the transport options had any technical issues!)

7) MAKE MORE DAY TRIPS AND LESS BOOKINGS

Moving between accommodation frequently can be very annoying and time consuming (checking in and out, settling in, transport between accommodations). Consider making day trips from one place rather than moving around each day. For example, if you stay in Osaka, it is a reasonably priced train ride to Kyoto, Nara and Kobe, which makes it suitable to have plenty of daytrips from. This can also allow you to stay at cheaper accommodations (e.g. Osaka’s hostels are usually cheaper than Nara and Kobe’s). We took another extreme and travelled to Nikko for a daytrip from Tokyo (we were using a JR train pass so train trips were no additional expense)!

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(…it took about 2.5 hours one way between Mitaka Station and Nikko Station too…)

8) STAY AT THE SAME CHAIN OF HOSTELS

Many hostels offer discounts to those who stay at any hostel owned by the same chain for a certain number of nights. K’s House for example offers up to 2,000 yen discount depending on the number of bookings you had made with the chain. This would be extremely beneficial for those who are hopping between cities on a daily basis.

Plan(Let’s K’s-ing people!)

9) BE AWARE OF RESTRICTIONS/CURFEWS

If you are the party-goer type, make darn sure that your accommodation does not have a curfew! Many youth hostels and private accommodation have curfews so that guests do not disturb others’ (and their own) sleep. Western hotels and big hostel chains usually do not have curfews, and provide after hours access for entering after reception has closed.

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(Part circled in green reads “no one can enter from 11pm to 6am)

CONCLUSIONS

Overall, everyone has their own preference on which accommodation to select. While most would probably base their decision on cost, it should not be the only factor considered. Ask yourself, is it really that worth it saving 2,000 yen (USD20) on accommodation if it meant having to waste an hour each day going back and forth between your accommodation? What if it is more convenient to stay at somewhere slightly more pricey? Remember, you had likely spent thousands of dollars to reach Japan. What is a few additional hundred to ensure that you enjoy your trip more? You are on holiday – ENJOY YOURSELF!

Traveling Tip 2 – Planning Your Trip

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.

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(^ though hopefully not this diverse ^)

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.

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1) TIME

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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!

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Traveling Tip 1 – Saving Money

One of the things I have people asking me is: “Why the heck would you travel to Japan? It’s so expensive there!”

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Ironically this was coming from people who had never traveled there. Anyway, on one hand – yes, it is more expensive than other countries in Asia, such as Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia etc. However, when comparing to many western countries in Europe and America, it was relatively cheap to travel around Japan. Yes, Ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels), upper class restaurants and taxis can be expensive. But there are cheaper (and not necessarily lower quality) options. If you are traveling on a tight budget, have a read through to see how you might be able to save money as you travel around Japan!

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1) ACCOMMODATION

In many places we went to in Japan, we stayed in private rooms at hostels. A private triple dorm room with shared toilet and shower facilities ended up costing between 2,500 to 3,000 yen per person per night (between $25-30 USD, 100 yen is approximately $1 USD). This is cheaper than many hostels I have stayed in other parts of the world in shared dorms. While the idea of staying in hostels may be off-putting for some, the standard of Japanese hostels is actually better than many hotels in the world. There are usually many facilities which are available as well, such as kitchens and free wireless internet access. Most places usually provide bedding, and have plenty of staff proficient in English who are willing to point out good places to visit/eat/have a great time. Many also host events for guests, such as cooking Takoyaki or having tours in nearby areas. I highly recommend searching on Hostelworld or checking out the likes of K’s House/J-Hoppers. There are several alternatives, such as cheap Ryokans or Minishukus, but Hostels are likely to be the cheapest and most accessible. Capsule hotels are another option, though I kind of get freaked out at the idea of sleeping in a box/coffin. One downside of hostels is that the rooms are on the smaller side, but all were large enough to fit in our luggage (and we had a lot!) with enough left over space for us to move around. Note that sometimes, the price of a night’s stay isn’t the only deciding factor. Vicinity to transport hubs, cost of traveling to and fro from accommodations, novelty etc should also be considered.

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2) FOOD

A trip to the nearest convenience store is highly recommended for grabbing breakfast. They usually have a large selection of bread/bento/onigiri. 2-3 buns/onigiri and a drink would cost about 500 yen. An alternative of course are fast food joints, though you deserve a smack on the head if you pig out at McDs for every single meal (at least go to a Japanese chain like Mos Burger)! Convenience stores are also a good place to get lunch, especially if you are likely to spend the day on the move and do not have time to look for food. Supermarkets/train stations are also good places to pick up bentos, though these are usually harder to find than convenience stores. Bakeries are also a good option. Items from bakeries are usually quite cheap, and are of much better quality than what I get back home (which is also usually double the price of what you can get in Japan)!

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Many small restaurants would have a decent size meal for a reasonable price, especially at lunchtime (between 500 to 1,200 yen). There are also cheap eating outlets, such as Yoshinoya (beef bowls), or places which you use a vending machine to place your order. Some restaurants also have special sets. I had a bowl of ramen and some Karaage on rice cost for just 850 yen near Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, and it was more than what I could eat.

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3) TRANSPORT

First rule of travel – minimize your journey as much as possible. Less long distance travel equals less money being spent. That said, this could be your once in a lifetime trip, in which case you may want to see as much as you can. The most efficient form of transport between cities are trains. These are much more reasonably priced than most plane trips over short trips, and are much faster than buses. Take advantage of several discounts available to foreigners. The most well known discount is the National JR Pass. There are different durations available (7, 14 and 21 days) as well as cheaper regional alternatives. Once you have paid for this pass, you are allowed to ride just about every JR train available, INCLUDING SHIKANSENS (bullet trains), and you can also reserve seats for no additional fee (only using national pass). Note that the pass does not work for all Shinkansen, so make sure you pay attention to what train you want to take before hopping on. Do also make sure not to get a carriage that allows smoking (I found that out the hard way back on my school trip in 2003…)

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If you are in no rush, highway buses are a great alternative (though I usually get travel sickness in buses especially on winding roads). These are usually cheaper, and does service remote areas which may not be serviced by trains. Some buses run overnight, which would save you an additional night’s accommodation cost if you use it (trains have this option too, but the price is almost the same as an expensive ryokan). However, I would not recommend this if you are looking to cover a very long distance and are running on a tight schedule (e.g. from Kyushuu to Hokkaido). You surely do not want to spend too much of your traveling time riding a bus. Plane flights on the other hand are by far the most expensive option, though there are also cheap discounts for foreigners. For example, if you had entered Japan flying on Singapore Airlines, you are eligible to get discounts on ANA flights (10,000 yen tickets from Sapporo to Fukuoka for example) as both flights are a member of Star Alliance. JAL has a similar discount with members of One World. This price is usually 3-5 times cheaper than what locals have to pay. Planes are more efficient to use when covering long distances. If traveling over short distances, remember that while the flight itself may be faster than trains, there is still time wasted during check-in/waiting for luggage/security checks. In addition, transport to/from airports can be pricey and a hassle in itself.

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For travelling within a city, always look to see if there are day passes which would help save a lot of money. For example, Kyoto has a day pass for buses for 500 yen within the city centre area. This is worth it if you are planning to take at least 3 bus trips in a single day. Tokyo has passes for its local JR train network, as well as separate passes for each of the major subway companies. Some cities also have reasonably priced bicycle rentals. Consider using these, as they are a great way to see parts of a city you would otherwise not see. Of course, walking is the cheapest option, and might end up being a quicker option too if you are just taking a subway/bus between two adjacent stops!

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4) ATTRACTIONS

While you might not notice it at first, attractions can cost a lot of money. A temple entrance fee here, a guided tour there, and it can all add up very quickly. The most efficient way is to plan out your activities. After your initial planning, sit back, look at your plan, and have a think – do you really want to go to all these places? I have heard cases of people visiting about half a dozen temples a day, and getting completely bored of them within a few days. Remember, quality over quantity! Visit less places, and spend more time to appreciate them. You might also find something else along the way which might warrant a detour. In addition, consider looking for attractions which are free. Many shrines in Kyoto are free to enter, such as Fushimi Inari Taisha, Yasaka Shrine, and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. The Asakusa district in Tokyo is another good free traditional area.

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FURTHER ADVICE – DO NOT REGRET NOT SPENDING!!!

While it is good to save as much money as possible, you should not hold back on experiencing something you really want to try. If you want to try staying at an extremely pricey Ryokan, take a day trip to another part of Japan, have a nice Kaiseki Ryori meal, or visit another temple – THEN DO IT! You would have likely paid a lot of money on airline tickets to get to Japan, so why not spend a few extra hundred dollars on enjoying yourself? If you are missing out on all these experiences, you might as well stay home. This is the same for travelling anywhere else in the world in general. The worst thing you can possibly do is return home regretting not spending a bit more to try something unique, for wasting energy or time by not using more efficient means of transport, or for not buying that souvenir you really wanted. Remember – experience and memories are priceless!

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