My 15 day trip in Japan was perhaps the most tiring but the best trip I’ve had so far! Never have I eaten, shopped and seen so much on a vacation! Read on to find out about my fun adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun…
To maximize our time, we flew into Osaka via Kansai International Airport and flew from Tokyo via Narita International Airport. There are however limited flights flying to/from Kansai International Airport so do plan your flight itinerary early!
I had done extensive research on the transportation system, the various travel passes and transit schedules for Japan before my trip due to its complexity. Despite the countless hours I spent, we still encountered many issues on our journey. Hence, my most important advice for Japan is to build in buffer time for your commutes!!! We missed one or two of our scheduled trains and ended up having to pay extra!
The first step for planning transportation is to ask yourself if it makes sense to get the JR railway pass. The 7 day pass costs $272 USD and 14 day pass costs $434 USD. Note that the days must be consecutive and the pass is not for sale in Japan. You have to show your pass to the station attendant each time you go through the gate. The pass can only be used on selective Shinkansen and JR trains in Japan.
I did not end up getting the JR pass as it was cheaper to get the local passes instead for our itinerary. Do some number crunching first and see if it makes sense for your schedule. Keep in mind that the fares for local subway lines are not included in the JR pass. Based on my experience, you have more options to get to attractions via the local subway lines, especially on the east coast. In fact, in Kyoto, some attractions are only accessible via the local buses. Therefore, to save ourselves the hassle of determining when to use the JR pass and when to use fares for local subway lines, we bought the ICOCA card instead.
The ICOCA card can be used on JR, buses and all local subway lines in Japan. You can purchase the card using the fare machines at any stations. Initially, you pay 2,000 JPY of which 500 JPY is kept as a deposit. When you leave Japan, you can return the card to get the deposit back. Make sure you use up the balance before you leave or else they will charge you a fee for returning the remaining balance. You can also use this card at selective vending machines or vendors to pay for purchases.
Click on the links below to access the purchase page.
In Osaka, we used the ICOCA card but we also purchased this travel pass. This pass costs 1,500 JPY per person which includes a 1 day unlimited pass on Osaka’s local subway lines and buses as well as a one way ticket on the Nankai Rapit train to Namba station (i.e. downtown). You can also receive discounts at selective attractions on the day where you have activated the pass.
We purchased the ticket online prior to our trip. This can be done 20 days in advance. After you arrive at the airport, just follow the signs to the train station. You will see the ticket counter on the right to redeem your actual train tickets. You will be assigned a reserved seat on the next train. I believe the train comes every 15-30 minutes. The train ride took about 40 minutes. There are some luggage space at the entrance of each cart.
I can’t stress how important it is to book your bullet and connecting trains ahead of time if you are going to be traveling throughout Japan! It really took the stress away of having to figure out where to buy your tickets at each train station and figuring out the train schedules! That way, you can just arrive at the station 15 minutes prior and board the trains. Otherwise, you will have to wait in line at the fare machines to purchase your tickets which would likely cause you to miss your train! Prior to arriving in Japan, I have used the site above to plan out our train schedules. You put in your departure and arrival station as well as the time you would like to depart. The system will tell you which trains you need to take to get there and their departure/arrival times. I printed this out and showed it to the attendant in Osaka. In 15 minutes, she had booked all the trains for our entire journey! This website is a lifesaver! If you are using the JR pass, click off the “Airplane”, “NOZOMI/MIZUHO/HAYABUSA (SHINKANSEN)” and “Private Railway” options.
Therefore, I suggest figuring out your schedule prior to your departure date, have your schedule printed and book all your train tickets at your first point of arrival in Japan. Go to any JR station and look for a counter with the following sign at the top:
Please check the operating hours of the service counters prior to going. The one we went to in Osaka closes at 9 p.m.
If you would like to reserve a seat, you would have to pay extra (almost the same as the fare itself). However, there are only a limited amount of non-reserved carts so you may not be able to sit with your travel buddies during peak hours. If you miss your scheduled train, you can still board the next one but you would lose your reserved seat. Like the airport express train, there are spaces to place your luggage at the entrance of the cart or on overhead compartments above your seats.
We exchanged the Japanese Yen in Canada prior to going. The exchange rate offered at the hotels, travel agencies and local exchanges in Japan were extremely low. Therefore, I highly recommend doing the exchange beforehand. All vending machines, street market stalls, and some boutiques do not accept credit card.
There are many counters in the airport where you can purchase sim card with airtime and data. However, to save money, we had rented a pocket wi-fi before we arrived. After doing the transaction online, they will notify you of the pick up location (i.e. counter at the airport). Please make sure you have the confirmation # and the name on the confirmation matches that of your passport. They provide you with a manual to teach you how to use it but it is pretty self-explanatory. It also comes with a postage paid envelope so you can just drop off the device at any mail box before you leave Japan.
The pocket wi-fi can connect up to 10 devices at a time. The pocket wi-fi has a good battery life; we were out for 12 hours on average and the device did not run out of battery. Also, connectivity throughout Japan was very good. There were a few times where we had to reset the device but we did not have any major issues. We paid $118 for 15 days for the three of us which is much better than a $100 plan.
If you are a hardcore travel research like me, you may find the following tips handy!
- You can drink tap water
- Tipping is not required
- Most Japanese people do not speak English. Use simple,single English words to communicate. Your best bet are the station attendants if you’re looking for directions
- Take off your shoes on tatami mats
- Wait until all passengers have gotten off before you board the train
- Do not talk on the phone on the trains
We booked a relatively fancy hotel in Osaka, Hotel Monterey Grasmere Osaka, which was in downtown Namba due to its close proximity to the Namba station. We checked in after we arrived at the airport and the room was ready for us. Buffet breakfast is available for 2,380 JPY per person. Our room costs us $302 CAD/night.
We booked a 3 bed bedroom which seemed a little crowded with the 3 beds. However, the room was pretty comfortable. It was interesting that the front desk is located on the 21st floor and you have to take another elevator to get to the hotel rooms. There is also an art gallery and a restaurant on the 21st floor. You need your room key to open the automatic doors to the rooms after you get off the elevator.
Hotel service was very good. Check in and check out was very quick. Please make sure you return your room keys. Otherwise, there is a 1,000 JPY charge per card.
As I was heading to Japan after a 2 month work assignment in Hong Kong, I had three pieces of luggage with me. We decided that it was impossible to carry six pieces of luggage between the three of us while trying to catch our bullet trains. Therefore, we asked our concierge whether they could help us send some luggage to our Tokyo hotel (final stop in Japan). Luckily, our hotel did offer this service and it was much less expensive than we thought! We were anticipating $200 CAD but it only costed us $30 CAD (same price for each piece regardless of weight)! Also, it was all delivered in one day! I highly recommend using this service if you’re going to be on the road like us.
With my aunt’s flight being delayed for 1.5 hours, we did not accomplish much on the first day. After checking in our luggage, we went to the Takoyaki Museum located near the Universal Studio station. The Takoyaki Museum is not really a museum, it is just an area where there are a few takoyaki restaurants. It is located on the 3rd floor of the plaza and closes at 10 p.m. There is a vending machine outside each restaurant where you buy your tickets. Then you give your tickets to the staff and wait for your order to cook!
We tried a good variety of takoyaki (in soup, salty-flavoured, mentaiko-flavoured, ginger-flavoured and beef-filling) but my favourite was the mentaiko-flavoured one with mayonnaise. It was very creamy, had the right balance of powder and octopus and was not too salty! We ate about 12 each for our dinner. It is actually quite pricy; I think we spent about $15 CAD per person. After that evening, we were all takoyaki-ed out for the rest of our time in Japan! There is also a souvenir shop in there where you can buy takoyaki related items.
In addition to Universal Studios, there are also many shops, hotels and restaurants located in that area. When we left, it was close to 10 p.m. so most of the shops were closing. We took a stroll in the Hard Rock Cafe souvenir shop which closes at 10:30 p.m., snapped some pictures and headed back to our hotel.