Thursday, February 8, 2018

Japan Travelogue Day 0: Guide to planning your Japan trip!

It’s been a couple of months since i returned from Japan (went last October!) and i’m finally working on the travelogue. I’m not quite sure how many posts are there gonna be in total since it’s 15 days worth of photos and information BUT i’m quite sure the end product will be quite an ultimate guide for those first timers planning a trip to Japan! (self praise, LOL) This year’s tagline/ focus for myself is to “Stop procrastinating and get the work done” so I’m quite determined to finish the travelogue, even if it means i have to spare an hour a day before sleep to fill in some details or edit the photos. I took close to about 5000 photo throughout the whole trip! Not sure how but it will definitely take some time to filter through everything :| 
In this first post, i’m not going into the trip direct but instead i’ll be sharing how i planned prior to the trip like which airline i flew, the passes i used and other useful details to note. Honestly speaking, Japan is one of the hardest itinerary i had to plan so far and this is also one of the reason why i delayed going to Japan till now. 
5 Wallich Street, #01-20, Tanjong Pagar Centre, 078883 

There are so many places to go, so many things to do, and getting around is not the easiest thing to do in the country (due to their confusing railways) and i took me about 4 months to plan my trip. Had to do my research online, source for sample itineraries and i even made a trip to the Japan Rail Cafe to consult the guide! If you have the time, i would recommend to spend an afternoon at the cafe, grab some food and consult the friendly guide at the booth if you have any burning questions about traveling to/in Japan.

At the same time, you might want to purchase your JR passes, sim card or tickets at their counter. Save the hassle and time but you can also purchase them via KKday (I did a whole post on how i utilised KKday to help me save time and money for my trip and i highly recommend you guys to check it out! LINK) 
When it comes to getting air tickets, i feel that it’s important to forecast early so whenever there is a promotion, you can make use of it and save on the airfare! Even though my trip was in October, i bought my air tickets way in the month of Feb during one of SQ “two-to-go” promotion. A typical SQ return ticket to Tokyo would typically cost about $750-ish if you book early to about $1000+ for last minute deals.

To side track a bit, JR passes are usually recommended if you intend to travel out of Tokyo to other areas such as Osaka and Kyoto but you probably know that they are not cheap. It cost about $335 for a 7 days pass and up to $534 for a 14 days pass. No wonder they say it’s not cheap to go Japan because getting around is already so expensive… I did not want to spend that amount of money to get the pass so i did my extensive planning and decided to go for Multi city trip tickets for my trip to Japan, meaning i will arrive and depart from different cities. In this case, arrive at Tokyo and depart from Osaka. This way, i don’t really need the JR passes since it’s one way (Note: JR pass is only worth it only if you do a round trip to and fro Tokyo)

Usually a multi city trip would cost much more (just did a quick search and the price is easily above 1K!!!) BUT i managed to get SIN - TOKYO and OSAKA - SIN tickets at just $690 which is a steal and it’s during the year end season some more! Perks of booking the flight early. (Side track a bit, i got my upcoming Hong Kong trip tickets at just $200+ on SQ. Booked last November, flying in March!)

This is why i feel that planning ahead is really important. 

Hotels in Japan are quite expensive unless you are willing to stay at the outskirts of town and even if i pay an average of $100 a night, it would easily cost me $1.4k for my 2 weeks stay. Even still, it’s not easy to find a decent place for $100 a night, in fact at the point of time when i was searching for a hotel, the cheapest was about $160/ night which would amount to $2.2k just for accommodation alone. Before go on on where i stayed, let me share on how i usually determine which area to stay regardless of which country i travel to. 
What i do usually is to first determine the areas i want to visit, then print a huge ass map of the rail system (in my case i have to print the Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka maps) and start highlighting the areas and from there i will determine which are the areas i should stay so i can access to these places of attractions easily. This is quite a useful method and you also get to “prep” yourself on the directions and lines to take when you are there in Japan!

Like i mentioned earlier, Hotel is out of the picture for me since it’s pretty expensive so i turned to AirBnb and if you want those authentic local stay experience, Airbnb is probably the right way to go. I saw some really nicely decorated Japanese homes and was so tempted to try them but these places are usually located way out of town. Oh wells, maybe the next time. Popular areas like Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya in Tokyo and Namba in Osaka are definitely pricier, sometimes comparable to hotels. In the end, i chose to stay near Minami-Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and Fukushima Station in Osaka. In my upcoming travelogue, i will definitely share more on my accommodations in Japan! 

I would say the most confusing thing about Japan is the transportation. There are so many operators, different lines, different type of trains and even though i was in Japan for 2 weeks, i still took me some times to figure out how the train works. On the last day we were almost late for check-in at the airport as we didn’t know the train will split up and go different directions. 天啊. Like the train literally spilt up - Cabin 1 to 4 will head to the airport direction and Cabin 5 to 8 will go back to the local loop. The announcement didn’t exactly help because it’s all in Japanese, LOL
In Japan, there are several types of transportation cards and certain cards can only be used at certain areas. The most popular ones are Suica, Pasmo and Icoca. I won’t go in-depth on the difference between each card but you can read about them HEREThese cards are available for sale at most places and they work just like our EZ link. Top up with credit, 500 yen deposit and expires if not used for 10 years. 
Throughout my 2 weeks in Japan, i had to rely on 2 apps (other than google map) on my phone to help navigate me around. One being “NAVITIME for Japan Travel” which was the ultimate life saver because it tells you exactly which platform to go and even which cabin to get on so that once you alight, the escalator/ stairs is probably right in front of you. There are options like cheapest, fastest route and how much the journey will cost etc. All you have to do is input the station you are taking the train from, the destination and the time you will taking the train. This app works brilliantly in Tokyo but was quite inaccurate and cranky in Osaka, not sure why. I would give this app like 4.5 out of 5 stars :) 
The other app that i use is the “Rail Map” which works pretty much like the previous map and provides the basic details like different routes you can take, how much the journey would cost etc. Just that it’s not as user friendly as the previous app. The overall map is really complicated but i feel that it's probably the most accurate railway map of Japan. It works pretty well in both Tokyo and Osaka. This app gets a 3.8 out of 5 stars from me!
As much as we rely on navigation apps, we would need at least 3G connection to stay connected and for Japan, there are 2 ways you can go about getting connected. First is to get a sim card. I got mine from the Japan Rail Cafe - $35 for 7.5GB, throughout 15 days. (i think it's $35, can’t remember) I feel that it’s better to have a sim card ready upon touch down so you can immediately navigate or find information online. If not you would have to find where exactly is the telco counter in the airport and waste time queuing and setting it up. The sim card i got from Japan Rail comes with detailed instruction (both iOS and android) on how to activate it upon touch down so it was pretty much hassle free.

Another option would be to rent a portable wifi egg before departing for Tokyo. I got mine sponsored from Yourwifi (read my post HERE) Like i said in the post, there are pros and cons of getting a wifi egg. It’s definitely cheaper if you have more than 2 people sharing, the $35 that i spent on getting the 7.5GB sim card is equivalent to about 5 days rental of wifi egg with unlimited wifi but you also have to consider the battery life, the connectivity etc. The more people sharing the wifi, the slower the connectivity and everyone have to be within the radius to get the wifi signal. Thus it really depends on individual to decide which is better.
When planning a trip to Japan, you are bound to come across different kind of passes which is supposed to help to make your trip better. Some helps to save cost by providing bundle deals, some is for convenient sake to save time and you have have to do your research to see which one suits your itinerary the best. Other than the JR pass, there are also Osaka Amazing Pass, Hakone Free Pass and Kansai Thru Pass to name a few.

Japan Rail Pass (JR pass) is the most expensive yet comprehensive pass as it allows you to take unlimited travel on almost all JR trains nationwide, including bullet trains, limited express trains, local trains, some JR buses and the JR ferry to Miyajima. But if you are only traveling within a certain region, for example Hokkaido, you can opt for the JR Hokkaido Rail Pass. Details can be found HERE.

I mentioned that i did not want to spend $$ on the JR pass (May i repeat, $335 for a 7 days pass and up to $534 for a 14 days pass) but i did get the 2 day JR Kansai Area Pass ($52) which allows me unlimited travel within the Kansai Region. This pass allows me to travel out from Osaka to make day trips to Kyoto, Nara and even Kobe. Tip: You can purchase your JR pass in advance at the Japan Rail Cafe. 
Last but not least before i end this post and move on to the travelogue, here’s something you need to know about Tax Refund in Japan. Let me try to summarise it -

#1 - You will need your passport for tax refund of 8%
#2 - Minimum spending of 5000 Yen (excluding tax) to be eligible
#3 - Items are divided into 2 categories - General and Consumables
#4 - Min. 5000yen in either category to be eligible.
(Items of different category cannot be combined to reach minimal spending.

The above is probably all you need to know. Some stores may be “tax-free” (example - Uniqlo) so don’t worry on tax refund, at the same time, some stores do not offer tax refund at all. For example i bought a pair of Adidas Sneakers from ABC Mart thinking i get to save 8% but no, didn’t realised until i paid. Damn it! Most stores would need you to bring your receipt to the tax refund counter and they will refund you the money in cash (which i realised in turn make you spend more money! What sorcery is this???) At the end of the process, they will staple the receipt(s) into your passport for verification at the airport customs counter.

I feel that the most silly thing is that your consumables will be packed into a clear bag and they are not to be opened at all. If your snack(s) or food which you intent to eat straightaway after paying is packed together with the rest of “consumables” then you can wait till you come back Singapore to eat it, LOL. Like whut? Anyway, at the end of the trip, your passport will probably be as thick as a book due to the tax refund receipts and by right, the airport customs will need to verify the items but it didn’t happen. I just dumped all the receipts away at the airport, just before immigration after i passed the customs counter.

Alright, that’s pretty much all i need to share before i embark on my Japan travelogue! I hope this blog post gave an insight on how i did my planning.