General Guide (Updated as at October 2011)
- Establish the season (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter) and travelling period. If possible, avoid Japanese New Year holidays (28 Dec to 6 Jan), the Golden Week (27 April to 6 May), Obon season (11 August to 20 August) or local festival/holiday unless that’s the very reason you want to be there. Spring holiday usually coincides with Sakura season, so it’ll be extremely crowded in some popular places with more expensive accommodation and air tickets running out quickly.
- In general, two main seasons to visit Japan could be Spring especially for sakura blossoms (slightly beyond control as it is subject to nature for a period of 1-week and the region, very crowded as Japanese love sakura) and Autumn to catch the foliage (though subject to nature but more in control, just as crowded). Notwithstanding that, Hokkaido is great for Summer (weather is cooler and season for lavender and sunflower) and Winter (beautiful winter scene and great for skiing). For winter activities, you may consider Tohoku and central Japan area too.
- If your main purpose to Japan is shopping, you may want to consider going in Spring and Summer as the clothes will be more suitable for Singapore’s weather. (Do note that Tokyo and Osaka are very hot and humid in Summer.) If the main purpose is to savour local cuisine, then certain food may be seasonal.
F&E vs Tour Package
- For a short trip (3-4 days), one can check with travel agents such as JTB, which may offer F&E package deal with air ticket + accommodation + railpass. I find this cheaper than buying all these separately for short trip. However, in view of the current (2011) situation and special railpassess, it may be worthwhile to buy these items separately if you have time to do research. Also, it may be worthwhile to check the hotel sites direct as I find ICH hotels offer cheaper rates if you book directly. Sometimes, there is promotion whereby you can get enjoy promotional rate lower than the best available rate.
- For Hokkaido, it’d good to check out any F&E package deal though I find it cheaper to join a tour group for winter period plus there is no direct flight from Singapore to Hokkaido. (Recently, there are some chartered flights that fly directly from Singapore to Hokkaido during winter period.) It would be a challenge moving around in winter Hokkaido unless you are going to a particular ski resort.
Flying to Japan
- For my F&E trips, I chose Tokyo Haneda/Narita, Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya as the starting points as Singapore Airlines flies direct to these places. For Tokyo, the best option is to fly to Tokyo Haneda as this newly opened international airport is within Tokyo city. Nonetheless, there are many direct flights to Tokyo Narita with competitive rates such as ANA, JAL, Delta.
- If you would like to travel to other cities, especially Hokkiado, buy a Star Alliance Japan Airpass as an economical option as fare is 10,000 JPY. One popular option is to fly to Hokkaido via Tokyo Haneda as the domestic airport is nearer and cutting down on transit time.
- Flying direct to Nagoya and Osaka would save some time and money if you are not going to explore Tokyo and northeast regions as travelling by train or other means of transport may increase time and money.
- Fukuoka is the most convenient place to explore Kyushu. Also, one can take a 10-min train to the city centre (just like taking MRT) while the other two airports (Narita and Osaka) are very far from the city centre. The taxi fare is about 1300 yen from Hakata to airport (cheaper than an airport limousine bus fare from Tokyo to Narita, 3000 yen one-way)
Moving within Japan
- As mentioned earlier, if you intend to fly to other cities, consider buying a Star Alliance Japan Airpass or JAL Yokoso Japan Airpass which could be more economical depending on the some sectors, fares start from 10,000 JPY. Also, check on the terms and conditions of such passes, for example, you may need to take airlines from your country of origin under Star Alliance in order to buy the Star Alliance Japan Airpass at a “discount”.
- Moving around in Japan by Japan Railway (JR) and other private railways may be one of the most enjoyable parts of the travelling experience. Beside bullet trains, there are “themed trains” running in certain areas during certain season/ period. For example, a train with tatami seat or with “Mickey Mouse Ears”, “European-style train”.
- Beside the popular JR train which has an extensive network, some time, there is a need to use private railway line to access certain regions such as Amanohashidate. In addition, some private railway may run parallel to JR line at certain stretches but may offer a cheaper rail pass, for example, Kintetsu Rail Pass.
- It’s advisable to use Hyperdia to calculate the fare and travelling time between 2 stations. Do note that there could be limitations, or a need to top up for certain routes using a JR railpass (as there are certain parts which could be under a private railway). Therefore, read the conditions carefully. Do your sum.
- Depending on the length and area/region of travel, it may be worthwhile to get a railpass (flexible or consecutive day) from JR or private railways. Also, the railpass can be used on some buses/ferries. On the other hand, for certain regions, it may still be cheaper to buy a ticket especially if one is not travelling everyday or extensively (long distance). It’s cheaper to travel by local train if time is not a consideration. For example, from Sendai to Naruko Onsen, travelling by Shinkansen will shorten the travelling time by about 1 hr but the cost difference is about S$16. Also, it’s not worthwhile to use the railpass that day since it’s less than 3,300 yen (my special 3-day flexible pass costs 10,000 yen so average of 3,300 yen per day).
- Alternatives for travelling between regions could be highway buses which may not necessary be cheaper or faster. However, it may be convenient to reach areas that are “unreachable” by rail. One example will be traveling in Kyushu where you can buy a SunQ Bus Pass which allows unlimited travel for a period of 3 days or 5 days for different regions.
- For moving around locally (as in within a city or area), a day-pass or “free-pass” (in Japan, “free” generally means “free and easy/unlimited travel” and not “free of charge” :p) could be a good deal.
- When looking for accommodation in Japan, double-check the quoted price as it’s usually for a person, i.e. for double occupancy, you need to multiply the quoted price by 2 to get the room rate. This may even apply to international brand hotel if you booked through a Japanese website.
- Japanese hotels have a room option known as “semi-double”, which is smaller than a standard double room and twin room. This option is normally used as a single room. Therefore, it is good to check the floor area of the room if you are comparing the rates.
- For ryokan, if more people stay in a room, the price per person may be lower. If ryokan is considered expensive for the budget conscious, especially in Kyoto, one may consider a minshuku whereby the facilities (toilet and shower) is likely to be communal.
- When in Japan, a must-try is the onsen-ryokan for Japanese style living despite a slightly higher cost. Ryokan generally provides breakfast and dinner. It’s not hard to find a ryokan depending on how deep is one’s pocket. It would be good to splurge for a night for a good onsen-ryokan. To minimise the cost, one could consider a room with attached toilet but without shower/bath. Reason being that since you are going to the onsen (usually with washing facility), you don’t really need to shower/bath within your room. You shall visit the onsen at least 3 times, i.e. before dinner when you checked-in, before you sleep and before breakfast.
- For families (with children) staying for more than 6 days should consider serviced apartments as they’ve kitchenette and a residential environment, one could consider Citadines, Somerset, Frasers and Oakwood depending on their budgets.
- Hostel is a good options for the budget conscious.
- When travelling within Japan by train, try to carry a small trolley bag as some train stations, especially those in the rural area do not have escalators or at best one-way (usually up) escalators. In addition, some trains may not have luggage compartment though you can rely on the overhead rack. If you are vertically challenged, it may not be a good idea.
- Do check out the luggage delivery service (宅急便takkyubin) at the airport or hotels, it may be worthwhile to send your extra pieces of luggage to the airport ahead of time or your final hotel. The fee is rather reasonable and costs about 1500 yen (S$22) for sending a mid-sized luggage from Akita to Tokyo over 3 days (based on personal experience). My luggage arrived cleaner than it used to be, with the wheels cleaned like new and the luggage wrapped in plastic bag ;p