I thought I’d do a quick rundown of all the general trip stuff and what worked well, or not so well.
I love flying and I even love flying long haul but a lot has changed since 2010 and I didn’t enjoy it much this time. I booked a BA/ANA codeshare flight but it was entirely BA which meant no Japanese stuff whatsoever – the few Japanese films didn’t even have English subtitles. The flight out was fine as there was an empty seat in the middle and the aisle person got up a lot. The food was okay and I mostly just read a lot and watched a film (The Big Short, pretty good). I also had amazing views of Mt Fuji floating above the clouds as we landed.
The way back was another story entirely. I wasn’t feeling too great already and the flight was full. The guy in the middle seat only got up once (in 12 hours!) and the aisle person a couple of times so I felt bad asking to get out and didn’t stretch my legs as much as usual. The food was much worse and I barely ate anything. I also had to pay an extra £40 each way to reserve a window seat – the first time because I was on a flight to London when check-in opened and on the way back, I looked at the seat plan the night before check-in and there were only about 10 seats left in the whole plane. I guess people just think of that as part of the cost now?
I’m so annoyed at Virgin stopping their Japan flights. Next time I would go out of my way to fly with a better airline since even first class didn’t look like much. I already had to fly to London so I would also try via Amsterdam or Scandinavia instead.
I was a bit worried about the weather as Scotland never gets very hot and I consider 16°C with a breeze to be delightful weather. In Japan it was 20°-32°C for my whole trip and humid. I think I learned that my limit for normal activity is 24°C – anything above that and I had to keep in the shade and take a lot of breaks. There were a few overcast days and rainy days that brought the temperature down a bit, but there were also a couple of days where I just couldn’t cope at all. I did at least manage not to get sunburnt at all!
If you’re more used to higher temperatures, I would say May is the best time to visit – it’s less crowded than cherry blossom time, but there are even more flowers to see. Just make sure to go in between Golden Week and the rainy season in June. I think Autumn is still slightly preferable for me – the days are shorter but the weather is perfect.
I was a little disappointed that my hotel was near a subway station rather than JR lines but it was well-placed and only a few stops to Asakusa, Ueno, Akihabara and Ginza with connections everywhere else. You can also now use your Suica card on the subway (and even on other city subways including Osaka and Nagoya) so I didn’t have to give up my favourite penguin friend. I found the subway just as easy to use as the JR lines but usually requiring a lot more walking and stairs since they’re underground. If you have a choice, staying near JR stations is preferable.
The JR Pass was great as always. I travelled to 6 different places outside Tokyo and never had any problems. Being able to jump on the next Shinkansen without queuing for reservations was amazing. I was worried the first time but there were usually 5-7 unreserved carriages and plenty free seats. The ticket offices always had long queues and often the trains were booked up anyway so I would definitely do it again. It gives you so much more freedom to change your plans and stay longer in one city or leave earlier if you find something better to do. If you’re in a group and don’t want to sit apart, then reservations are still the way to go, but book them a day or two in advance.
Hyperdia is your best friend in Japan. You can look up all the trains, buses, ferries etc. with times, fares, platforms and connections, and it can be set to only show those valid with a Rail Pass. It’s also handy to screenshot and show to staff at booking offices so you reserve the correct train.
I still don’t really speak any Japanese apart from the very basics. There were a few times when I felt like a stupid tourist but mostly everyone was very patient and often sincerely delighted just to hear me say arigato or kawaii. Learning hiragana and katakana made such a difference to previous trips though. I was able to recognise stations when there were only Japanese signs in sight or when the electronic signs were taking ages to change. I could try and translate advertising text to entertain myself, and figure out shop signs and packaging and flavours.
The Google Translate app was also brilliant as you can photograph things for text recognition. I used it to great help on signs and in shops to check packaging and less successfully on the laundry machines. My finest use was on the highway bus, drawing in the kanji above the drivers head to try and figure out if I’d bought a single or a return ticket. Don’t leave without it!
I spent a long time saving up for this trip so that I could have the best time and not worry too much about how much I was spending. I brought about £800 with me in cash and only used my credit card a few times near the end so I doubt I spent more than £1000 overall, or £50 a day. When you consider all the shopping I did, plus 3 weeks of food, travel, entry tickets etc. that’s pretty good going. Because it was hot and sunny, I was able to have lunchtime picnics most days and I didn’t end up going to many restaurants since I was on my own. It’s good to know I won’t have to save up so long for my next trip!
With hindsight I would have done a few things differently. It would have been better to split my time more equally between Tokyo and Osaka and bought the 14 day rail pass, taking all my luggage with me (or having the big suitcase forwarded) then travelling to Hiroshima and Nagoya from there. I was a bit rushed trying to fit everything into 7 days and I still had to carry a lot of stuff around from hotel to hotel. 3 weeks was also a little bit too long. It was getting too hot in the last few days and I was getting tired with all the walking. I also really missed working on my projects – it wasn’t that easy to work on anything while I was away, even with my laptop, and it also kind of felt like a waste of time that I could be spending on Japan experiences. Next time I would do 14 days plus a travel day either side.
I wasn’t affected by jet lag at all on the way out – I was super super tired when I arrived late morning (and fell asleep briefly on the train from the airport) but after a lie down and a wander around, I slept fine that night and every following night. It took me a month to fully recover once I got home though.
If there’s anything else you want to know about, leave a comment. I’ll be writing more about some of these topics in my next book too.