Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (3 week/23 days) itinerary and intro

Intro

This was my first holiday with T and we were both pleased to discover that we had similar and often complementary travel habits and priorities. T also discovered to his joy how much I enjoy trip planning because he hates thinking about it. So I get to plan all our holidays forever and ever, yay!!

It had been just over three years since the previous visit to Japan. The trip was my longest yet – three-ish weeks, meaning I could fit in first-timer must-see tourist places (my opinion) for T who hadn’t visited before, and I could easily expand the itinerary to include other sites that I want to visit for the first time. This trip was a monster to plan. We visited southern Kyushu and northern Hokkaido (briefly), and used the 21-day JR pass which is known as the most difficult JR pass to get your money’s worth out of. We exceeded the value significantly, which shows the distance and frequency we used it. Now I know we both adore Japan and T really gets why I want to keep returning to Japan for travel, there will be many more trips to Japan in the future. We are visiting again this coming April!

I chose January to February because it is the low season (and I love escaping Melbourne summers to enjoy winters) and timed it to visit the Sapporo winter festival.

The plan

    Visit the top “first-timer” places (if I designed a 1.5-week itinerary for someone’s first and last Japan trip) – Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Miyajima, Kawaguchi-ko – could not fit in Kawaguchi-ko and not great time to visit
    Sapporo Winter Festival
    Otaru Snow Light Path Festival (Otaru and Sapporo festivals usually overlap by a few days)
    Visit Himeji castle, often considered the most beautiful original castle in Japan – Was under renovation for many years when I wanted to visit in 2012
    Visit Kobe – Never been!
    Visit Kyushu including Yakushima (and Jomon Sugi) – Southern Japan would likely have a milder winter and Yakushima looked like a stunning island but we didn’t manage to visit Jomon Sugi because winter is actually not the right time to make the hike – oops!
    Visit Shirakawa-go and see the gassho-zukuri farmhouses – carried over from the 2012 trip where I couldn’t fit it in and because winter is still the best time to visit
    Visit Amanohashidate, one of the nihon sankei (three most scenic views of Japan) – carried over from the 2012 trip where I couldn’t fit this in but did visit Miyajima (one of the other nihon sankei

The worst part of planning Japan trips is everything that unfortunately cannot make it onto the itinerary! For resources, Japan-guide and Hyperdia were my indispensable best friends as per usual. To be the most time and distance efficient, I wanted to fly in and out of different cities, and ended up flying with JAL to Itami airport (Osaka) and departed from Narita airport (Tokyo) with stopovers in Singapore on both legs and an additional transit at Haneda airport (Tokyo) for the first leg to Japan. That made both legs pretty intense (considering Japan is not that far to Melbourne) and the first leg arriving in Japan especially crazy! I tend to find the combination of Tokyo and Osaka flights optimal since both cities have two major airpots and both cities typically end up on itineraries. I think I would look less favourably on spending 24 hours to get to our starting city (after our flight we had to take a shinkansen to our first destination!), especially as I hadn’t realised we would have to check-in again on the domestic leg (including hauling our luggage, which ended up missing our flight during the short transit – but more on that later). On the other hand, fewer airlines can string together Osaka and Tokyo routes, and I considered under $1000 for JAL pretty good at the time. The route also allowed me a few hours in Singapore – enough time to exit and leave immigration in order to meet my friend, who came to the airport.

Final itinerary

17 January – 10 February 2016

Click links to see the corresponding blog entry!

Day 00: Flight from Melbourne to Itami/Osaka via Singapore and Haneda/Tokyo [enroute]
Day 01: Arrival in Osaka; travel to Kumamoto [Stay in Kumamoto] *JR Pass Day 1*
Day 02: Kumamoto – Kumamoto Castle, Suizenji Garden, travel to Kagoshima [Stay in Kagoshima]
Day 03: Kagoshima – Sengan-en, Sakurajima [Stay in Kagoshima]
Day 04: Travel to Yakushima, pick up rental car, Yakushima [Stay in Yakushima]
Day 05: Yakushima – Shiratani Unsuikyo [Stay in Yakushima]
Day 06: Yakushima – Kigen-sugi, Yakusugi Land, return rental car, travel to Kumamoto [Stay in Kumamoto]
Day 07: Pick up rental car and drive to Takachiho – Takachiho Gorge, drive to Beppu [Stay in Beppu]
Day 08: Beppu – Hells of Beppu, return rental car, travel to Fukuoka [Stay in Fukuoka]
Day 09: Fukuoka, visit Nagasaki [Stay in Fukuoka]
Day 10: Travel to Kyoto – Fushimi Inari Taisha, visit Osaka – Umeda Sky Building [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 11: Visit Hiroshima, visit Miyajima – Itsukushima-jinja [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 12: Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto Imperial Palace, dinner at Sojiki Nakahigashi [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 13: Visit Himeji – Himeji Castle, visit Kobe [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 14: Visit Amanohashidate, visit Osaka [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 15: Kyoto – Ginkaku-ji, Philosopher’s Path, Nanzen-ji, Kiyomizu-dera, Higashiyama, Gion [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 16: Travel to Nagoya – Nagoya Castle [Stay in Nagoya]
Day 17: Visit Takayama, visit Shirakawa-go [Stay in Nagoya]
Day 18: Travel to Tokyo – Asakusa, Tokyo Sky Tree, Sumida Aquarium [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 19: Travel to Sapporo [Stay in Sapporo]
Day 20: Sapporo Snow Festival, visit Otaru Snow Light Path Festival [Stay in Sapporo]
Day 21: Travel to Tokyo [Stay in Tokyo] *JR pass day 21 – last day*
Day 22: Tokyo – Tsukiji, Roppongi, Odaiba [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 23: Tokyo – Shibuya, Shinjuku [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 23+1: Flight from Haneda/Tokyo to Melbourne via Singapore [enroute]
Day 23+2: Arrive in Melbourne

Important costs (AU$ or ¥)

(Not well documented…)

    Flights: ~$990pp with JAL
    Hotels: ~$140/night for 2 (most expensive ¥35728 for one night at The Tokyo Station Hotel)
    Dinner at 2-Michelin star Sojiki Nakahigashi: ¥15000pp
    Kobe beef dinner (in Kobe): A5 120g-180g sirloin and flank/bottom sirloin (a bit of confusion on the cut) ~¥9000-11000
    JR pass: $676pp (21-day JR Pass)
    Return ferry to Yakushima from Kagoshima: ¥16100yen
    Car rental: ??

Note: T didn’t really buy anything and spent around $4500-5000 total for the whole trip (inclusive of flights) and I wouldn’t say we were frugal at all

Final thoughts

We packed one check-in suitcase (~17kg), one carry-on suitcase and one carry-on backpack (we packed a change of clothes in our carry-on plus anything we wouldn’t want to lose, such as cables and chargers). We packed a light duffel bag in case of shopping – which we ended up doing a lot of. The whole check-in suitcase ended up filled with souvenirs (mostly food and alcohol) so we additionally checked in the carry-on suitcase and duffel on the return flight (we haven’t needed to expand with the duffel bag for our later Europe or USA trips though). We avoided breakfast-included rates where possible because I find conbini so much more convenient and much cheaper, especially as T doesn’t tend to eat breakfast. I usually purchased vegetables or salad the night before to eat while getting ready the next morning (I find vegetables far too lacking when eating out). If still hungry, I’d grab something on the go while we were out for the day. As with previous trips, I mostly chose mid-range business hotels, which are small but clean and well-priced. Often it’s possible to find good ones near the main stations. I stayed at Hotel Sunroute Plaza (Shinjuku) for the second trip in a row because I really like it’s value and location. It’s reviewer ratings are lower than what I typically choose but having stayed there before, I knew what I was in for and it met all my needs as it did the previous time. One of my favourite things about travelling in Japan is that mid-range hotels usually have coin laundries. We only had difficulties with machines taken up by other customers once and had to leave and come back, but otherwise we were able to do our (planned) laundry every 4-6 days.

We only made one restaurant booking, which including ringing up months ahead to book the Michelin restaurant (among my shortlist, this was the first one to accept a reservation from a non-Japanese patron – usually they would ask your hotel to book for you). For everything else, we looked up restaurants on the fly or just walked into a restaurants that looked alright. Most restaurants that came highly recommended from the Internet, we planned ahead (like the day before) and made sure to arrive early to minimise the queuing. It was hit and miss – I wouldn’t trust English reviews anymore. Notable restaurants will be discussed in subsequent posts. Overall the food was amazing and cheap – T is the most adventurous eater I’ve been to Japan with, and I think we were really able to eat very well for pretty cheap. In particular we are both fans of izakaya (and drinking Japanese fruit liqueurs), which we ate at for most dinners. My impression is that on average, most of our dinners cost ¥3000-6000 for two (with alcohol), proper lunches around ¥2000-3000 for two, and on-the-go quick snack/lunches around ¥1000-1500. This isn’t representative of Japanese food but these are the kind of places we naturally gravitate towards based on our taste and preference for Japanese food (casual and homely)… and occasion need to just keep moving and not prioritise food. Street food and conbini food is pretty awesome!

As mentioned above, we purchased the 21-day JR pass ($676 at the time but this moves with the exchange rate) which we picked up locally from HIS Japan because they had the cheapest AUD price at the time. We exchanged and used it upon arrival in Japan and I made almost all my reservations on the first day as well, for ease. With this, we literally zipped all over Japan and made some trips that seemed pretty silly if not using the JR pass (such as shinkansen travel between Kyoto and Osaka just for dinner).

For the first time, I also rented a pocket wifi. My previous travelling style had been without phone/internet and relying on maps and diagrams stored on my phone (or, I admit, hard copies printed and folded in my bag!). As my planning got more complicated, this method got more complicated for travelling through Japan. Now with T as my travel companion, he made it clear that Internet was non-negotiable. It is much easier to rent pocket (portable) wifi devices in Japan than to try and get a phone sim (it is now easier to get a data-only sim, but still harder and more expensive to get a sim with calls/text). We did some research on wifi coverage (since we would be visiting some pretty remote places) and daily limits in deciding on the company to go with (neither of us can remember the company or find the emails from that time unfortunately…). We chose to have ours delivered to our first hotel (also possible to pick up from major airports) and then return it via reply-paid post on our final day. This worked seamlessly and I believe many travellers who rent pocket wifi devices would agree that the process is very convenient for most companies. Our coverage was great even in Yakushima (except for maybe for some spots deep into our hikes) but actually it was surprisingly bad on long shinkansen rides. I am using a data sim for my upcoming trip so I will see how I get on with that compared to a pocket wifi.

I also discovered and bought my first goshuin-chou – a bit late from Kinkakuji though, so I missed out on several good opportunities earlier on! Argh! I almost filled my first book from the trip. We spent many days with no plans and just wandering the streets and obsessively going to teeny tiny shrines and temples annotated on Google maps and finding a priest or caretaker to give me a goshuin. I definitely surprised many poor priests/caretakers in some fairly obscure suburban shrines and temples. I am super proud of my first book and hope to collect many more books and fill them!

Unlike previous trips to Japan where I only used cash (pre-exchanged in Melbourne), we got the 28 Degrees credit card and used it for about half our expenses. I pre-exchanges only some cash, in anticipation for being able to use a credit card at most restaurants. This trip is where I noticed that more merchants were accepting cards than previously.

I also planned places where we would need to drive because public transport in Japan does have it’s limits! So for the first time, I had to rent cars and we both had a go driving (we rented twice). It’s actually really easy driving in Japan (especially in small towns). We got our Internal Drivers’ Permits just before leaving (received on the spot).

Camera: My beloved Canon G15 – unfortunately I dropped it a few times early on and then the focus didn’t work properly… this was my last trip with this camera although I tried to use it with difficulty for several more months. 🙁 I adored my G15 and should have taken better care of it.