A Journey In Japan

This is a throwback destination guide. People often ask me which place has been my favourite travel destination. Years of travelling around the world means it is difficult to choose a favourite place. I have been fortunate to go to so many great places but if I had to choose one favourite, it would be Japan. I visited Japan in the summer of 2017 and absolutely fell in love with the country, the culture, the food, the people etc. It’s a very special place and an easy and safe destination to travel round solo. Key tourist sites are well sign-posted, the high speed and efficient Shinkansen bullet trains make getting around the country a breeze and you will always find people happy to help you should you need guidance/directions.

Tips:

  • You need to buy your railcard before you go. I bought my pass here http://bit.ly/2LXFvV5 The pass is excellent value for money and gives you unlimited travel provided you follow the instructions. Your Japan Rail Pass entitles you to free seat reservations on valid trains. Reservations can be made in person at train stations. This site offers great advice https://www.seat61.com/Japan.htm
  • When in Japan, buy a Pasmo card (similar to London’s Oyster card) that you can top up to pay for public transport. You can buy these from Metro ticket machines.
  • Download the free Tokyo Metro App to help you navigate your way around this sprawling city.

TOKYO

Give yourself plenty of time to explore this huge city. Suggested things to see/do:

  • View Shibuya Crossing from Starbucks.
  • Visit Tsukiji Market and have a fresh sushi lunch.
  • Go to Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park.
  • Go up the Tokyo Skytree.
  • Visit a cat cafe.
  • Catch the show at the Robot Restaurant.
  • Visit Sensō-ji temple.
  • Stroll along Takeshita Street in Harajuku.
  • Sing Karaoke in a branch of Karaoke Kan.

Day trips from Tokyo: Nara, Kamakura, Nikko and Mount Fuji (train journeys from Tokyo)

Nara Famous for the freely roaming deer and temples.

Kamakura: An understated seaside resort with a large buddha statue.

Nikko: National Park with a famous shrine and mausoleum.

Mount Fuji

I didn’t get to go to Mount Fuji during my trip unfortunately as I had left it to do when I returned to Tokyo after exploring the country and I misjudged how much time I needed to do it. If you can, you should definitely go; you can find a suggested day trip itinerary here https://www.jrailpass.com/blog/mount-fuji It’s at the top of my to-do list when I am next in Japan…

TAKAYAMA

A city with a beautifully preserved old town. You only need a night or two here. Many travellers come here before hiking Japan’s Alps. I really enjoyed my visit here. Such a cute place with small shops, saki bars and restaurants. Stay in a traditional Ryokan if you can and you definitely have to visit an onsen (a hot spring that is a quintessential Japanese experience).

KANAZAWA

A modern city with some fantastic sites to visit. Suggested things to see/do:

  • Kanazawa Castle – impressive historical site.
  • Kenrokuen Garden – lovely landscaped garden.
  • Go for matcha tea in one of the geisha teahouses in the Higashi Chaya district.
  • See contemporary art at the 21st Century Museum.

KYOTO

Absolutely loved my time in Kyoto. It’s less manic than Tokyo, with so many beautiful temples to visit, and no trip to Kyoto is complete without a walk around the geisha district. You can see a geisha performance for an affordable price at Gion Corner. Other suggested things to see/do:

  • Fushimi Inari Shrine – famous for its thousands of red torii gates. Kyoto’s most visited shrine.
  • Visit Arashiyama’s bamboo forest. It can get over-crowded so try to visit early in the day.
  • Walk the Philosopher’s Path (known for cherry blossoms in the spring).
  • Dine in a restaurant in Pontocho Alley.

OSAKA

A modern and vibrant city with a thriving culinary scene. A fun day trip is a visit to Universal Studios Osaka – go just to hear Harry Potter speaking Japanese and ensure you stay for the dementors light show in the evening. I also recommend eating your way round Dōtombori or booking a food tour.

HIROSHIMA & MIYAJIMA

Many travellers visit Hiroshima and Miyajima as a day trip from Tokyo but both places are peaceful at night and are good options for an overnight stay if you don’t want to rush. I chose to stay overnight in Hiroshima and I was glad I did this as Miyajima is a train and ferry ride away from Hiroshima, and it may take you longer to get there and back than you expect. I visited Miyajima in the morning which then gave me plenty of time to explore Hiroshima’s Peace Park. The Peace Museum is excellent, and the park itself has several monuments, such as the Children’s Monument, worth seeing.

I spent three wonderful weeks travelling round Japan focusing on the main places I had read about during my trip research but there is so much to see in this magnificent country so I will definitely be going back. For now Japan, Sayōnara. We will meet again one day.

 

Travel Tips

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Over ten years of travel experience means I’ve made many mistakes along the way. Here are some tips to hopefully make your travels easier…

  • Take pictures of your passport and any relevant important documents and store them online (I use Google Drive).
  • Carry spare passport photos with you in case you need them for visa applications.
  • Buy a passport holder with a pocket in-built – good for storing boarding passes. Some places require you to hand in your boarding pass as you leave so always keep hold of it until you have left the airport.
  • Ensure you check whether you need a visa for each destination you intend to travel to. Some places allow you to apply online in advance or pay on arrival. Other destinations have more complicated entry requirements, for example when I visited China I had to go to the Chinese Embassy in Dubai and submit a lengthy application form with copies of my passport, flights (you have to book a return ticket), hotel booking and a letter from my employer confirming they gave me permission to travel to China.
  • Buy a travel purse – a pouch with a couple of pockets would do – to store the various currencies you will use. I keep the currency I am currently using in my main purse and store the rest in a small travel purse.
  • To avoid too many ATM charges, work out your daily budget and withdraw the money you need once a week. This will also ensure you are not carrying too much cash and help keep you on budget.
  • Always pay in the local currency and watch out for ATMs that offer confusing conversion options – just select to withdraw cash in the local currency.
  • Don’t exchange money at airports unless you are desperate. Rates are too unfavourable.
  • Avoid using your money cards in general – stick to cash as much as you can. Lessens the risk of your cards being fraudulently copied/misused.
  • Hostelworld is good if you need to make a series of bookings ahead of time but can’t afford to pay for them yet. You pay a deposit to secure the booking and the remainder when you arrive. Each hostel usually gives good written descriptions telling you how to get to them and a link to Google Maps. If you are able to pay up front, it’s always worth checking prices directly with the hostel who may offer you a cheaper rate than the one offered on Hostelworld.
  • Buy a TSA approved padlock – you can use this for your bag/suitcase when you travel and for your hostel locker when you arrive if a lock is not provided (my suitcase was smashed open at an airport in the US as my in-built suitcase lock was not TSA-approved).
  • Keep your smartphone on airplane mode when not using it. It makes the battery last longer when you are out and about in the day and also stops any surprising data roaming charges if you are on a contract. I have a pay-as-you-go sim from the UK but I only use free wifi when travelling. Some countries offer free sim cards on arrival to tourists if you can’t live without data.
  • Install a VPN on your phone and laptop. I use Express VPN and have always had good service. You can’t always access the websites you need in various countries (for example, you can’t use booking.com in Turkey, I couldn’t access my Gmail in China – so a VPN is invaluable and also lets you watch your favourite TV on the go (BBC iplayer etc) if your wifi connection is strong enough.
  • Take advantage of hostel freebies such as free breakfasts, towels, walking tours or any discounts they offer – for example chain hostels have links with each other and may be able to give you discounts for staying in multiple hostels within the chain, help you book shuttles to travel between them, or offer discounted tours, for example, Envoy Hostels have hostels in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Phnom Penh. If you book a stay with Abraham Hostels they give you 10% off your stay in another one of their hostels – they have hostels in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tel Aviv.
  • Book direct with airlines rather than using third party companies. This makes it easier to make any changes you might need to or deal with any issues such as missed flight connections. Use sites like Google flights or Skyscanner to scout out which airlines fly where and then go to the airline’s own website if you see a fare you like the look of and buy it from there directly. For example, if you book flights on the Norwegian site of Norwegian Airlines using Google Translate, the price is 20% cheaper. Create a profile first and buy the ticket you want. I’ve done this and it was straightforward.
  • Sign up for airline loyalty programmes and build up loyalty points/air miles.
  • Download useful travel apps, for example, airline apps to store mobile boarding passes or translation apps like Snap & Translate. Lots of travellers use maps.me which allows you to download a map for your location and use it offline. This app also helps you search for supermarkets, restaurants etc. Many places have transportation maps you can use offline, for example London and Tokyo underground both have apps that help you plan your journey and tell you which metro lines to use.
  • Invest in a lightweight travel towel. Though some hostels provide towels for free or for a small rental fee, it’s good to have a trekking towel you can use for beach days or hikes that won’t take up much room in your day bag.
  • Stick to drinking bottled water, and in countries where the water quality is poor, you will want to brush your teeth with bottled water. Be cautious of ice in drinks and salads in such places too.
  • For travel insurance I can recommend World Nomads.
  • Things I can’t live without – a travel adapter/travel hairdryer with different voltage settings/lightweight day bag (mine is from the Columbia brand)/earplugs.

Happy travelling! 🙂