Sunday, June 24, 2018

Japan 101

So many people have so many stories about Japan that we were so excited to go there! Especially, because we were going to a traditional Japanese reception of our dear friend's wedding. When we started to plan our itinerary, we had no idea what we wanted to see. It took us a while just to orient ourselves to the culture and geography of the country. Planning can be daunting so I thought I should begin with some basic information that could be useful to another traveller. Here I also have our itinerary as well as alternatives that some of our friends who were there for the reception planned.

Generic pic to bright up the blog (and really, I took it on my phone):

Travel essentials:

Pocket WiFi: the concept is pretty good. It's a WiFi router you can take with you (like JioFi in India) and it doubles as a power bank. You can rent it at the airport when you arrive and return when you leave. We didn't take one because our Airbnbs had one we could use, apart from the room WiFi. We instead took a data-only prepaid sim in the middle of our trip from a Bic Camera store.

JR pass: This is a travel pass that the train company called JR has which can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days. But it can only be purchased by non-residents and from outside the country. Everyone told us that we need it. So we blindly bought it. We later figured that we didn't really need it. In fact, instead of giving us flexibility, it restricted us considerably as there are many trains, buses and routes that are not covered by JR pass. The pass can be really helpful if you don't have a fixed itinerary or take at least 3 bullet trains (shinkansens). Japan official train app can help you plan journeys using JR pass so you know which trains are covered and which are not.

Trash: it's meant to be segregated into 4 units: plastic, glass, metal, burnable. Paper is occasionally recycled. But mostly, I see only burnable vs plastic. It's very hard to find trash cans on the street and you see signs that tell you to take your trash with you. You can find some plastic and metal recycling bins next to vending machines and in stations.

Language and getting around: Google Translate allows you to download a language for offline use. You can also use their camera feature to read street signs or menus. However kanji script is not supportive for this because the same character can mean different things given context. Many people at touristy places understand English and they have maps and directions/signage to help you. Tokyo and Kyoto trains and buses have English language support. Google maps is not perfect.

Sakura season: Sakura season extends for one and half months around March and April, across the country, but at any given place it doesn't last for more than 3 weeks. So it's hard to ensure you catch Sakura if you already have a fixed itinerary. If you stay flexible and take a JR pass, you can easily travel by shinkansen to wherever there is Sakura during the time you visit. Japan guide website has a Sakura forecast for each area. Autumn is also very beautiful and lasts longer and locals prefer the it to the Sakura season given less crowds.

Driving: you need an international driving permit and even then you need to hire from big brands because most local rental companies only accept Japanese license. We couldn't hire because we didn't get an IDP. It could have saved a lot of time and added flexibility when travelling to rural areas. Japan drives the same as India and the UK.

Itinerary (with links to blogposts):
We did Tokyo-Kyoto-Alps-Tokyo
Day 0: Flew into Tokyo and Japan
Day 1-3: Tokyo
Day 3: we were meant to go to Mt Fuji but it was cloudy and we went around Tokyo instead. We reached Kyoto by night
Day 4-6: Kyoto, of which we did a half day trip to Nara
Day 7-8: We were in the Japanese Alps where we went via Kanazawa, stayed the night at Takayama and another night at Matsumoto
Day 9: Kawaguchiko (Five lakes area) to view Mt Fuji
Day 10-11: Tokyo
Day 12: Flew out of Tokyo and Japan

Some of our friends went to Hiroshima through Osaka instead of the Japanese Alps and some went to Hakkaido chasing the sakura. Some went to Hakone to view Mt Fuji instead of the Five lakes area. Most people we knew spent 3-4 days in Tokyo and 3-4 days in Kyoto. Many went to Nara from Kyoto. We don't know anyone who went to Kamakura.

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