Japan has always been one of our must-visit destinations. In 2016, we finally got there for a 3 weeks trip across the country. In this article, you will find the photo story of our trip and some general useful tips for traveling in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan is an amazing country with unique culture and very interesting history. While on one hand, they are a very modern society pushing the state-of-the-art in many areas. On the other hand, they have kept so much from their traditions and integrated them in their modern life. I have a huge respect for the Japanese people having built so much with the very few resources they have. They are also very friendly to foreigners and always happy to help you.
Our travel story in photos
I won't go in too many details about our trip in the article itself, but I will let our photos tell you the story. Just open the photo story and enjoy. If you want to read more about how I create these photo galleries check out my previous blog post: How I create photo stories from my travel.
Planning the trip
If you want to know more about how we planned the trip, you can find my planning table on Google Sheets. There you will find the exact day-by-day itinerary and all the planned expenses, like flight and train tickets, hotels and activities. I wrote more about how I plan our trips in How to get the most out of your travel with some smart planning.
General tips for traveling in Japan
And now some general tips for traveling in Japan. These are all things that turned out to be very useful during our trip. Some of them apply to any country, but some are very specific for Japan.
Japan Rail Pass
Japan has one of the world's best train system so you shouldn't look too much for other options when traveling across the country (except for the islands that are not connected of course). Trains are very expensive, but there is a special ticket for tourists, called the Japan Rail Pass. It seems expensive at first, but just a single trip from Tokyo to Kyoto and back can cost as much as the pass for one week! Having the Japan Rail Pass gives you the flexibility to hop on (almost) any train at any time! It is very useful for last minute plan changes, for example due to bad weather. You can of course also make seat reservations in advance if you want.
You have to buy the Japan Rail Pass, before you fly to Japan from your home country. You can choose a duration of 1, 2 or 3 weeks and if you want to be able to use the green cars (something like first class) or not. Once in Japan, you just need to pick up the ticket. Make sure you check the procedure on the official site and organize it well in advance.
When traveling by train, a practical app to check the train schedules is HyperDia - we used it all the time and it is priceless when you need to quickly change your plans. It works both for public transport and for long distance trains.
You may need a car only in some very rare circumstances, because Japan has very good train and public transportation system. We were considering this only for our stay on Ishigaki island, because there weren't many buses there.
Be careful, though, because Japan has some very strange rules around the international driver's license. They require permits based on the Geneva Convention from 1949 and not the much more common 1963 version, because it is not signed by Japan. I only had a Bulgarian driver's license at that time and I just couldn't get a permit based on the 1949 convention! The "friendly" staff at the responsible organization in Bulgaria told me that, no they don't have the forms for the 1949 convention and that yes, it seems that Bulgarian nationals will not be able to drive a car in Japan. It would have been easier with the German driver's license I have now, because there are some special rules for some countries. Check out this website for more information.
When you plan what places to visit, checking out the Japan Guide website is a must. I have never seen such a well-organized collection places and attractions for any other country. This was my main source of information when I was planning our trip. The Wikivoyage page for Japan is good as well. When planning your trip make sure to also check out which places are closed for renovation in order to avoid disappointments.
The cherry blossom (sakura) is an important symbol in Japan being a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life. Many people go to Japan in the spring to see it, but timing is very important, because the petals start falling off quickly after they bloom. In general, the best time is at the end of march and the beginning in April, but it may vary depending on the weather and the exact location. If you plan to visit Japan during cherry blossom time, make sure to check out the forecast and the best viewing spots on Japan Guide. The time when the cherries bloom also varies a lot from region to region. In general, the cherry blossom starts later further north or in higher elevations.
When traveling, we usually do free walking tours in every city we visit. This seems to not be very common in Japan, but there is something much better - the goodwill guides! There are several organizations in Japan that connect tourists with locals who are willing to show you around their city. You don't need to pay them money, but you have to cover all their expenses during the tour, like for example public transport tickets, museum entrance or lunch. They will tell you a lot about the places you visit and also about the Japanese life and culture. They will also ask you about your home country and your culture. The guides are usually people that have some free time and want to spend it meeting interesting people from other cultures. We had two such guided tours in Tokyo - one with a university professor and another one with a man that recently retired from working at a big Japanese corporation. They were both very friendly and helpful and very knowledgeable. The conversations we had with them were priceless and they thought us so much about the Japanese culture.
Make sure you organize a tour with a goodwill guide 1-2 weeks in advance. We were quite late on that and got lucky to find somebody in Tokyo on a short notice. However, it didn't work out in Kyoto, so we had to go with a paid tour with many people on it. We found a guide in Tokyo with the Shinagawa Goodwill Guide Club, but there are multiple organizations that you can find searching online.
If you don't speak Japanese you may have some difficulties, because many people there don't speak good English. I installed an app called Waygo which at least helped us translate Japanese text so we can read some signs and notes. It is far from perfect, but sometimes it can be very helpful, like for example in a restaurant.
Even though English is difficult for the Japanese, most people are very friendly and will go to great lengths to help you if you are in need. We had a peculiar experience leaving Kanazawa. The train didn't leave on time (which is very untypical for Japan) and everybody around us looked upset. There were only announcements made in Japanese, which we didn't understand. We tried asking some people around us, but nobody spoke English. We were just sitting in the train and didn't know what is going on, while other people were getting off or on the train. Are we on the right train? Should we stay in or get off? After 15 minutes, a guy came to us with Google Translate opened on his tablet, where he has written that the train is late because of strong winds, but we should stay inside and wait until it leaves.
I always want to have mobile Internet on my phone when traveling. This is especially important for a country like Japan, where the language may be a problem. I spent some time researching options to buy a SIM card with a large data plan. There is a nice SIM card rental service by CDJapan where they send the SIM card to the first hotel you are staying and at the end you just drop it in the mail. It was very convenient and having Internet connection on the go helped us a lot!
You should go to Japan!
Overall, Japan is a country that is definitely worth visiting! Make sure you try to understand their culture and history and you will be amazed by what they have achieved. The country has so much to offer from the huge modern cities to the small onsen and ryokans in the mountains, from the beautiful Japanese gardens to the majestic castles, temples and shrines. You should visit Japan!
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