A practical tips post…now there’s a domain I never would have imagined myself entering when I first started blogging. I’m forever grateful to those of you who follow along regularly, especially since I know my own particular flavour of writing is a bit of an acquired taste – long, essay-like sheets of prose, an ad hoc posting schedule that sees my articles emerging at best once a week and at worst, once a month. The truth is that those who know this blog best will know that brief, punchy articles, which get straight to the point, just ain’t my cup of tea. I’m no good at them and even when I try (case in point right here), I fail.
Once a rambler, always a rambler.
Why then am I taking a change of direction this week to give you a post stuffed full of the kind of practicalities and logistics that have no place in the heart of a fairytale-loving dreamer?
It’s because, in reality, to make these travel pipe dreams come true, you do need some planning, all the more so when travelling somewhere as alien to your own culture, language and way of life as Japan was to Pumpkin and I.
My man did more than 98% of the planning for our trip so I’ll get the marital disclaimers out the way nice and early in this post by thanking him for that so I can get on with sharing some of the handiest tips
we he found 😀
I don’t have any sponsored link thingies or affiliate what nots in this post so all the sources and organisations I’ve mentioned here are ones we found and used ourselves when planning our trip and were really helpful to us.
Of course you could always grab yourself a copy of Lonely Planet Japan for similar advice but that won’t be filled with nearly as much waffle or friendly chit-chat and where’s the fun in that?
Helpful Tips for Travelling to Japan
Takuhaibin Ta-Q-Bin Luggage Delivery
You know those parcels that you send by courier that never turn up (or turn up at the wrong place and wrong time?) Turns out, it doesn’t happen in Japan, so much so that if you are travelling between two major cities and either can’t or don’t want to carry all your bulky international luggage in between, the Takuhaibin (a.k.a Ta-Q-Bin) luggage service will save the day.
Just tell your hotel concierge where you want the baggage to arrive e.g. the hotel at the other end and they will see to the rest by asking you about breakables, phoning the hotel to confirm your booking and by the time you reach, your luggage will be there waiting for you as if by magic – all this for a very reasonable charge.
Even small hotels use the service and you don’t need to give any advance notice to use it. We arranged it upon checking out but be aware that it may take around 24 hours for your baggage to reach the next destination depending on location. We used the Ta-Q-Bin service twice and were very impressed by how efficient, trustworthy and easy it was. For example, when travelling from Kyoto to Osaka, we were spending one night in Nara en route. Our luggage was picked up at our Kyoto hotel and safely reached our Osaka hotel by the time we got there, leaving us to pack a light overnight bag for our night in Nara.
Portable Pocket WiFi
Pocket WiFi in Japan allows you to be connected wherever you are in Japan and with just one pocket WiFi, you can have up to 10 gadgets connected, which should be more than adequate even for the serious technophiles of the world.
There are several websites and organisations from where you can purchase Pocket WiFi. We ordered ours from the Japan Rail Pass website in advance of our Japan trip. Select the number of days for which you need it and it is charged on a day by day basis i.e. 9 days usage costs more than 8 days, which costs more than 7 days etc.
The Pocket WiFi gadget can either be delivered to your hotel in Japan or collected from one of several key airports across the country. We requested ours to arrive at our Tokyo Hotel the morning after we were due to arrive (which ended up being the morning we did arrive after our airport sleep fiasco!)
The kit comes with a charger, instructions, an envelope and case in which it will need to be returned before you leave japan. Just pack up everything and drop it into any post box but make sure you keep your user receipt. The WiFi worked a dream for us and was so speedy with excellent coverage. I’d love it if my WiFi at home was even half the speed!
We typically only turned on the Pocket WiFi when we were out and actually needed it; if you keep it on all day, you risk draining the battery (and spending your whole trip absorbed in social media which is an absolute crime in a country as magical as Japan!) Alternatively of course, if you are staying in accommodation with limited WiFi, then Pocket WiFi comes in handy for that too.
It was especially useful for online maps, restaurant ideas, local attractions and sights etc and if ever there was a contraption just made for the digital-era travel blogger, Pocket WiFi perhaps would be it!
After all, we all know that the scene below is a bog-standard gadget set up for any self-respecting travel blogger!!
Japan Rail Pass
The one tip we got above all others from our friends, who had been to Japan before us, was to invest in a Japan Rail Pass and having taken their word for it, I can now confirm they were spot on. The Japan Rail Pass allows you unlimited access year round to almost all JR train services (more details in the link above.)
The passes need to be bought in advance and can be ordered online. Once paid for, a confirmation voucher can either be sent to your home address or if you are London-based, you can do what we did and collect it in person from the Japan Travel Centre. Remember though that this is not the pass itself and to retrieve your actual pass, the voucher needs to be taken, together with your passport, to a JR office at an airport or large JR station. Ours were collected at Shinjuku train station.
Having the rail pass entitles you to travel on most JR services without any additional charge but the rail pass does not, in itself, equate to bookings on any specific train service. Therefore, if you already have a rough itinerary in mind for your Japan trip, be sure to make your reservations in person as soon as you can after you arrive in Japan, particularly for busier routes or at popular times of year to ensure you get assigned seating e.g. we booked ahead for our Tokyo – Hiroshima journey.
We chose the one week duration option for the rail pass but you will f ind variations on this depending on your plans and aside from just rail services, our ferry ride from Miyajima island to Hiroshima was also included within the JR pass.
Once you have your pass, go the manned barrier and show the pass to them when entering and exiting a JR station. Lose it at your own peril however as they cannot be reissued (I am the queen of losing things so am pretty smug about my safe-keeping skills during this trip – or did Pumpkin just look after them for me?!)
Pack for a range of climates
I ended up with a sun-burnt nose (despite stringently sun cream) on a scorcher of a day in Kyoto but just five days earlier, I had throbbing, numb finger tips from the frosty climate in the ice caves near Mt Fuji.
I over-packed by a ridiculous margin and could have clothed a small village with all the unnecessary items I brought (blame it on my pre-Japan flu-brain). I was, however, on the right tracks with packing a little bit of everything – coats, tights, shorts, short sleeves, long sleeves and a bikini. I had the right idea – I just had too much of it!!
If you plan to travel around several of Japan’s cities, particularly if you only have a couple of weeks like we did, station lockers will quite literally take the weight off your shoulders. Most major train stations have them and we used them in Hiroshima and Osaka. If you are using the Ta-Q-Bin service and keeping an overnight bag with you, station lockers are an ideal place to dump your things and get on with exploring without needing to make an additional side trip to your hotel or apartment just to leave baggage.
You need to keep the key on you and pay the money with change but once you shut your locker, you can’t open it again until the time comes for collection otherwise you will end up needing to pay again to re-lock it so make sure you’ve sorted out what you need before you close the door and lock it.
Furthermore, Japanese train stations can be huge and there’s nothing more frustrating after a long day of sightseeing than wandering around the train station for an hour struggling to remember where your locker is so keep an eye out for landmarks. This bore alarming similarities to the many times I have found myself, laden with shopping bags, aimlessly pacing around the supermarket car park in London, wondering where on earth I have left my car!
Allow more time than you think
Some Japanese cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are gigantic. Two areas that look close by on a map can take ages to travel in between, it makes London look tiny and queues generate like I’ve never seen before (they queue for lunches, for tube stations, for airports, for ice creams). The sheer size of the city combined with the queuing (and the getting lost and trying to find entrances and exits in the enormous stations) will certainly prolong your anticipated journey time so factor in more time than you were planning to get between different parts of a city.
Location of Tokyo Hotels / Apartments
Don’t sweat it. I know people often say this about big city hotels but seriously, it really makes little difference in Tokyo because the city is so huge that you simply cannot cover it all on foot, unless you’re planning to spend all year there. Whilst each distinct area may be within walking distance of specific sites or attractions, the reality is that you will need to use transport wherever you are (unlike many smaller cities around the world).
For Tokyo therefore, my advice would be that it is far more important to consider proximity to the metro station and to look at the map to see where most of the sites you have your eye on are concentrated and work it out accordingly from there.
We stayed in the enormous skyscraper hotel, Keio Plaza in Shinjuku because many people had suggested that Shinjuku , Shibuya and Ginza were great locations for first time visitors to Tokyo. We loved the location primarily because the hotel was virtually directly above the well-connected (but ridiculously busy) Shinjuku train station (once we finally figured out the exit we needed) but I honestly don’t think you need to spend too much time worrying about the exact area to stay in – just ensure easy access to a metro station.
Ryokan or Western Hotel?
The other hotel conundrum that travellers face when heading to Japan is whether to stay in a Western Hotel, a Japanese Ryokan or a fusion hotel that meshes the two styles. Given that I am renowned for dithering over anything and everything, we made life easier by staying at all of the above.
During our short time in Japan, we hopped in and out of 6 different hotels, two of which were Japanese Ryokans, three western style hotels and one was a cross between the two, essentially a Western Hotel that blended in many of the most appealing aspects of a Ryokan stay. We were fortunate to have had lovely experiences at all of them but for me, it was the Ryokans and the fusion hotel that were the most memorable and charming.
I won’t dwell too much on the experience here, as I plan to share more about my Ryokan stay in time but these are essentially more traditional types of Japanese abode where the floor is covered in tatami mats and a low-lying table with chairs is usually found on the ground. In the evenings, the staff typically move the furniture to the side and lay out futons on the floor for guests to sleep on. Most Ryokans will have a public onsen (bathing facility) but many modern Ryokans have en suite rooms for the more shy traveller. However, even an ensuite bathroom in a Ryokan is likely to be traditional in style with a small stool to sit on whilst bathing rather than western conventional shower cubicles.
We LOVED our Ryokan stays and until I share more details here on the blog, trust me when I say that you don’t want to leave Japan without experiencing this authentic style of hotel at least once.
Yes, we’re talking toilets this week on the blog and I must add, this will not be the last time it comes up in one of my Japan posts either.
Women’s toilets in Japan often don’t come with soap or anything to dry your hands with. One gets the distinct impression that nothing like this happens in Japan because of sloppiness or oversight. I suspect the reason for this is because of the rationale that the bidet facility and numerous buttons you can press for cleaning your nether regions should mean that one’s hands ought not to be dirty.
Still, if this is all a bit off-putting for you, carry some hand sanitiser or soap and also a small flannel or tissues of your own to dry your hands with. I saw many local women drying their hands with their own personal flannels that they had brought with them.
Similarly, at several sites, particularly at temples, to use public toilets or to enter the grounds of shrines, you aren’t allowed to keep shoes on. Slippers are often left at the entrance of the bathroom but to avoid needing to keep tying and un-tying shoes up, you may find it easier to wear sandals or shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
Of course, there are hundreds if not thousands more tips and pointers that could come in useful for planning a trip to Japan but I just wanted to summarise some of the ones that may have been less obvious or less familiar to those who have never visited Japan – but then again, when have I ever been good at summarising anything?!
Have you been to Japan? What else would you add to this list?