Thursday, January 1, 2015

A guide on planning your 1st Free and Easy trip to Japan

Many people might think that it is difficult to plan your own Free and Easy trip to Japan, especially if you don't understand any Japanese.

However, with the many available informative websites out there, planning your own trip might be easier than you thought it would be.

Since I've been getting emails from people planning their 1st trip to Japan, so here is just to share how I go about planning my trips:

1) Decide which season would I want to visit Japan for my upcoming trip. 
Generally speaking, March to May is considered Spring, June to August is considered Summer, September to November is considered Autumn, and Dec to Feb is considered Winter.

Sakura (cherry blossoms) at Ueno park
If you want a moderate climate and wishes to see Sakura, then I'd go recommend going Japan sometime between late March to 1st week of April (for cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto).
Since it is difficult to gauge the exact blooming dates, so this period quoted here is just a guide line as an average.
Occasionally, for example my March 2013 trip, sakura bloomed 2 weeks earlier than average (16 March), so I was lucky to be able to caught the peak blooming period since I was already at Tokyo in mid March.

Scenic train at Arashiyama Kyoto
Summer time in Japan is usually when there are matsuri (festivals), and is also a good time to catch the popular Lavender blooms at Furano in Hokkaido.  
My only time visiting Japan during summer was in July 2011 and I found the weather to be really hot and humid, kinda like how Singapore's sunny days are like.
Which is why from then on, I choose to only visit Japan in Spring, Autumn, and Winter...because I preferred a more cooling (or freezing cold) weather over scorching hot weather.

Autumn at Sapporo's Hokkaido University
For Autumn season, it is a good time to catch the beautiful reds and yellow colors of autumn leaves (usually from mid Nov to 1st week Dec for Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto), especially if you are into photography.
However, bear in mind that this is also typhoon season.
So if you are planning to visit Japan during between Aug to Nov, please check Japan's weather website for any upcoming typhoon's info.
Usually, if typhoon happens to pass by an area, most of the train lines will be suspended, until the typhoon passes by.
I once encountered typhoon when I was at Kyoto, so I just spent a couple hours shopping at indoor shopping mall while the typhoon passes by. By the time I left the shopping mall, the rain had already became slight drizzle.
November (esp late November) for Kyoto is an extremely popular destination due to autumn season, therefore, expect hotel rates to be more expensive for this period, as well as most of the hotels would be fully booked way in advanced.

Winter scene at Hokkaido
Winter is probably my favourite time to visit Japan. 
Since we don't have any snow in Singapore, so I prefer going to Japan during winter to play with snow and experience snow activities.
However, it is not guaranteed to see snow in places like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto though, since these places are known to only experience snow rarely.
If you really want to see snow, best bet is go places like Hokkaido, Tohoku, and some parts of Niigata, Nagano and Gifu (Takayama/Shirakawago) during late Dec to end Feb.
My visits to Japan during winter season are back in Dec 2010, Feb 2012, Dec 2012, Feb 2014, and upcoming Jan 2015.

2) Look out for good airfare deals

Once I have decided which season to visit Japan, I'd start to keep a lookout for any promo deals for airfares.
Every couple of days, I'd go check out websites of airlines like Singapore Air, ANA, JAL, Delta, Scoot, see if they have any promotions going on.

Once the flights are booked, then comes the start of hotel booking process.

3) Booking of accommodations 
There are various types of accommodations in Japan, which can be catered to different types of budgets.
A private room with shared toilet facilities where I stayed in Sep 2012 at Rakuza guesthouse in Kyoto.
If you are on a tight budget, and don't mind staying at backpacker's hotels, hostels, guesthouses with shared toilet facilites (usually there will be a toilet at every floor of the building), then you can usually be able to get cheaper accommodations. 
You can find some of these accommodations on this list which I've compiled some time back.

The Toyoko-Inn hotel room which I've stayed at in Tottori in Oct 2013
However, if you want a private room with your own toilet in your room, then the most common budget hotels are business hotels, usually run by hotel chains like Toyoko-Inn, Super Hotel, Chisun Inn, Smile Hotels...etc... Their rooms are usually pretty small, but they are fairly inexpensive.

Keio Plaza hotel at Tokyo where I stayed during my March 2013 trip
If you are willing to spend a more for a more spacious room, then there are hotel chains like Washington Hotels, Sunroute Hotels, as well as the other international hotel brands like Hilton, Hyatt, and etc...

Our room at Nakajimaya ryokan at Nozawa onsen in Nagano during our Dec 2012 trip.
Other than regular hotels, you should also try to at least stay 1 overnight at a ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) with hotspring.  These are usually more expensive than the usual hotels because they often come with dinner as well as breakfast.

Capsule hotel Kua House at Kobe where I stayed during my Sep 2012 trip.
Or for something different, you could try 1 of the capsule hotels? But do take note that most capsule hotels are only available to men, and they don't accept female guests at all. However, there are some which do allow women to stay overnight. I'm a female and I've stayed at Kua House capsule hotel in Kobe before (note: they don't speak much English here though since they are catered mainly to domestic Japanese tourists), and I will also be staying overnight at nine hours capsule hotel at Narita airport on my upcoming Japan trip next month.  First cabin is another "capsule" like concept but more spacious than the regular capsule.

I also use websites like, Japanican, Rakuten, and to do a search for hotels.

4) Deciding on where to go
For starters, japan-guide's wesite is a good place to start off with. You can find tonnes of information about the various places in Japan, including directions on how to get there, operating hours, railpasses info...etc.  I use this website alot when planning my trips.

The different areas in Japan also have their own tourism/travel websites, with more detailed info regarding their respective prefectures.
Here are some examples of the various websites:
Hokkaido, SapporoTohoku, SendaiNaganoTokyo, Yokohama, Fuji Five LakesHakone, KanazawaGifuOsaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Hiroshima, Shikoku, Kyushu, Okinawa...

One website which I like to use to check out festival/events details is the japan-attractions website. Just enter the dates of your trip, and you will see a list of events (illuminations, fireworks, workshops, festivals, exhibitions...etc) happening during that period of time.

1 problem with many 1st time travellers to Japan planning their own trip is that they tend to overpack their schedule with too many places to visit, thus having to keep rushing around so as to be able to visit more places within 1 day.
I do not recommend doing this because sometimes a location looks near on the map, but when you start walking in reality, it might be further than you think.
You might also come across interesting shops/cafes which you would be tempted to visit along the way, but if your itinerary is too tight, you might be less willing to enter to explore since you have to keep to the schedule and thus, missing out on certain things which you might otherwise enjoy.

Here are some other guides which I've posted previously, hope these might be informative too.

5) Planning transportation details for travel within Japan.
If you plan to travel long distance between 2 cities (eg. between Tokyo and Osaka), then you have the usual 3 options. Domestic flights, trains or buses.
My domestic flight on Peach from Osaka Kansai Airport to Hokkaido's New Chitose airport during my Oct 2013 trip
For domestic flights, the more commonly known flights are the ones operated by ANA and JAL. However, other than those 2 airlines, there are also a few other domestic airlines which you can consider. They are Skymark, Peach, Airdo and Jetstar.

Shinkansen (bullet train)
However, my favourite way of travelling within Japan, is by trains. Japanese trains are extremely punctual, comfortable, and convenient. 
I usually just buy 1 of the Japan Rail (also known as JR pass) passes and then take Shinkansen (bullet train) over long distances all across Japan, and then subways/local trains within each city/town.

Other than the nationwide-valid JR Passes, there are also other cheaper versions which has less coverage than the nationwide version. Here is a list of the various railpasses.

JR Pass
Although most of the railpasses can be purchased when you arrive at Japan, however, some of them, especially the nationwide JR pass have to be purchased from OUTSIDE of Japan.
They don't sell that particular railpass in Japan. Here is a list of places where you can purchase the exchange order for the nationwide JR Pass.
I believe there are also some websites which sells this railpass online, but I've not personally used these websites to make my purchase before.
I usually go to either JTB or Pricebreakers or Prime Follow Me Japan offices in Singapore to get mine.

Even though the trains within major cities like Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka have pretty frequent train departure timings (usually 1 train every 5-15mins or so), but in many parts of Japan, it is common to find that there is only 1 train departing every hourly or even every couple of hours.
Which is why, I cannot stress enough the importance of planning your itinerary for your train journeys.

For this, I use the hyperdia website for checking train schedules, durations, frequency...
If you are kinda lost on how to use this website, JPRail website posted a guide on how to use the hyperdia website which you can take a look at.

Long distance buses and overnight buses is a good option for those on a budget but are planning to travel long distance between major cities. The Willer Express is 1 bus company which I find that's popular with foreign tourists.

6) Data usage on your mobile phone
I used the Bmobile's 1gb data-only SIM card for my Sep 2012 trip
On my 1st visit back in 2010, I assumed that it would be relatively easy for me to find free wifi signal in Japan, but I was wrong.
Some times, even if the hotel states that they have wifi, but you might only get wifi signal only at their lobby area. Other times, even if they assure us that the rooms have wifi signal, but all I could get was weak (and intermittent) wifi signals from the room.
While out walking, it is also not that easy to find free wifi whenever you want to.

Therefore, from my 2nd trip to Japan onwards, either my hubby or myself will always get a data-only SIM card to use.
Since these are data-only SIM cards, so you cannot make/receive voice calls.
If that is an issue, u can just rent a portable wifi router or just rent a phone.

Here are some websites where you can get data-only SIM cards and/or rent portable wifi routers or rental phones:
- Bmobile
- eConnect
- PuPuRu
- So-net

Hopefully, this guide is able to be of some help to those who are planning their trip to Japan for the first time.

Would be good if you could let me know if this guide have helped you in any way, as well as if there's any other information which you wished I could have included in this post.

Enjoy your trip!  :)


  1. Hi there!

    Good post!
    Have always wanted to go Japan F&E, but have no idea where to start.
    Thanks for this post!

    Bookmarked this post for future reference!

  2. Thank you Sam. Your blog is indeed helpful for me to decide where to go and where to stay. Any recommendation for ryokan stay in either Osaka or Tokyo?

    1. Near Osaka, you can consider Arima onsen at Kobe. It is pretty popular with foreign tourists.
      Near (well, somewhat) Tokyo, there's Hakone, Kinugawa onsen near Nikko, Kawaguchiko, Kusatsu onsen...

  3. Hello ^^

    Thank you for sharing so much information! ^^

    And your japan travel logs too, I want to read everything xDDDD

    I think a convenient mode of transport is the willer express bus too, it took us from Osaka to Ikebukuro at night so we could get a good night's rest.

    Please continue to visit & blog about Japan, it's awesome! :D


    1. Thank you for the comments. My next trip would be end of Jan, will post about that trip sometime in Feb.

  4. Your blog is a real time saver for me. I am a Singaporean planning my family trip for their first trip to Japan.
    Saves me the headache of searching out all those important details like costs, frequency of transport, etc.

    I plan to go to Tokyo in the second and third week of December 2015. We (5 of us) are not into snow sports. Where is the best place to go near Tokyo where there is almost guaranteed snowfall?
    5 adults is a difficult number to fit in hotel bookings and expensive too, so I have opted for airbnb instead of the more more expensive hotels in Tokyo. Have you tried airbnb in Japan? Any comments?
    How about for air tickets?
    Sorry for the many questions. Would be very grateful your expert opinion.


    1. Even in mid Winter period (Jan-Feb), you'd be lucky if you can get a few days of snow...because Tokyo area (and its surrounding areas) seldom have snowfall. Morever 2nd and 3rd week of Dec is still considered early Dec, and often even ski areas don't start opening until end Dec usually.
      Your best bet that I can think of is probably Gala-Yuzawa/Echigo-Yuzawa area (70mins by Shinkansen train) which has a cluster of ski slopes. But their opening dates varies yearly since it is dependent on how early snowfall begins in the year as well as the amount of snowfall...etc.

      Even if you go Hokkaido in mid winter, you can't guarantee being able to see snowfall on any particular day, and I've been to Hokkaido on a 6 days trip during Dec and I did not even see a single day of snowfall on that particular trip. -_-

      5 adults are difficult, since finding large rooms to accommodate 5 adults together, or even 3 adults, can be difficult. It would be easier to find rooms to cater for 2+2+1, which is 2 rooms for 2 adults + 1 room for 1 adult...since most hotels have rooms for 1 person, but not for 3 person.

      I've not tried airbnb before, nor that website which you mentioned.

  5. Sorry, I made a typo error in my last comment.

    I meant to ask about (not


  6. Hi Sam, Love your Blog, it is so informative.
    I am planning a trip in Nov to Osaka, probably doing day trips out to Kyoto, Kobe and Nara from there. Just wondering if it is necessary to buy JR passes if I am just traveling to this few places and most likely USJ as well.

    Any idea how I should plan my itinerary?

    Thanks in advance!


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  8. Hey Sam wanted some info regarding your experience with booking seats on shinkasen. I am reaching Tokyo on 24th Dec and would be immediately looking to reserve seats on bullet trains upon arrival on airport. I would be using bullet trains from 26th going out of tokyo to 1st coming back to tokyo from Osaka. What are my chances of getting a reservation? Heard it a busy period in japan with regards to travel. Cheers mate.

    1. Hmm, sorry, I'm not too sure about that period, since I usually travel in Jan/Feb. The Tokaido Shinkansen route (Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka) is a popular route, and there's many Shinkansen travelling on this route per day actually. At most, if you can't get the train timing you want for 26th, then be prepared a few other backup train timings for just in case your first-choice is not available. Personally though, I think you shouldn't have that big of a problem. Are you using the 7 days JR Pass?

  9. If you are just travelling within Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, I wouldn't worry too much about getting any railpasses...even though there are many available in the region.
    For me, sometimes I use train lines run by JR company, sometimes by non-JR I tend to be lazy and stop trying to figure out which of the companies' railpasses to get. Anyway, travelling within that region doesn't cost much, so even if there's savings by using railpasses, it doesn't save too much, unless you are really travelling extensively every day....

    1. Yes I would be using the JR Pass, I would be using it to travel from Tokyo-Kyoto, Kyoto-Nara, Kyoto-Osaka - Hiroshima and return journies. Did a cost-benefit analysis and seem to be getting more for my buck. Thank you for your response. Really looking forward to my first trip to Japan :)

  10. Hi sam,

    im planning to go to japan this 24 march -1 st apr 2016 , this is our first time with my wife.
    whats the best itinerary for first time couples to go to? and how much should we bring?

    1. Japan is a large country. Which part of Japan are you planning to go? Hokkaido? Tohoku? Kanto/Tokyo? Chubu? Kansai? Kyushu?...etc....

      I'm going to go with the assumption that you probably meant either Tokyo or Kansai area (Kyoto/Osaka) since these 2 regions are more popular with foreign tourists.

      For Tokyo, you should be able to find some itineraries as well as some other Japan trip planning tips here:

      It should probably be sakura season too, even though it's still too early to predict since it's only Dec now. I'd probably estimate that the best sakura viewing period for Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto would be end Mar I guess...

      If you are going to Tokyo, you can probably try this:
      24/3 (Thurs): Arrival at Tokyo. Stay Tokyo
      25/3: Disneysea (don't go during weekends). Stay Tokyo.
      26/3: Meiji Shrine + Harajuku + Shinjuku or Shibuya. Stay Tokyo
      27/3: (JR Kanto Area railpass day 1) Tokyo to Kusatsu onsen (hotspring). Stay at Kusatsu onsen.
      28/3: (JR Kanto Area railpass day 2) Kusatsu onsen to Tokyo. Stay at Tokyo
      29/3: (JR Kanto Area railpass day 3) Daytrip to either Karuizawa or Kawaguchiko. Stay Tokyo
      30/3: Sakura viewing day: Visit Sensoji Shrine, then see sakura at Ueno Park, then go Rikugien. Stay Tokyo.
      31/3: Go HamaRikyu gardens, then take water bus (double-check online to see if the water buses from HamaRikyu still goes to Odaiba or not) to Odaiba. Spend the rest of the day at Odaiba. Or if you want to spend the entire day viewing sakura, then skip Odaiba.
      1/4 : Departure from Tokyo.

      If Sakura blooms earlier, then you can switch your days around and see sakura on 25-26/3 instead of on 30-31/3.

      Almost everyone that I know of spends more than they intended to on their first trip to Japan, since there's sooo many things to buy there.

      I usually bring about S$100 per day of the trip for my Japan trips. Eg, if my trip is 8 days, then I'd bring about S$800 spending money. This is just for 1 person.
      This is excluding the expenses for hotel, railpasses, and Disneyland/Disneysea admission fees. Budget more for Disneysea day.

      I don't really do much shopping. I tend to spend more on food and snacks from the convenience stores. Lol.
      If you find that you are getting short of yen in the middle of your trip, what I usually do is to start using credit card to pay for purchases and restaurant meals.

  11. Hi. Gd blog. But my fear is .. is it safe to travel solo? Im 54 , maybe a late bloomer.

    1. I'm a female in my 30s, I've travelled solo to Japan a few times previously. Never felt safer. :)

      The thing is, if you don't speak Japanese, it might be better that you spend some time to do your trip planning before you go, so that it will decrease the odds that you will have to ask for directions when u are at Japan.
      Although there are more and more Japanese who speaks English these days, but it would be better to try to be as self-sufficient as possible if you want to avoid any miscommunication or difficulties in communicating.

  12. hello Sam,

    i had been following your blog for years, i always wanted to go Japan free and easy but have no courage cos language issue and also i have 2 children ( 11 and 13) they love Japan anime and are big fans of ONE PIECE.

    I hope i will have the courage to land our foot there one day.

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  14. Hi Sam, I started reading your blog when googling "Japan free and easy", it is highly informative!
    Thank you for taking the time to do this!
    I am planning to go to Tokyo and depart from Tokyo on 10Oct to Kyoto, then Kyoto back to Tokyo on 17Oct...looking at Japan rail pass, that would be 8days! Buying the 14day pass appears excessive, would u recommend that I buy 7day pass then One way ticket from Kyoto back to Tokyo? (planning 1day trip from Kyoto to Nara and 1 day trip from Kyoto to Osaka within that 7days period)...

    Also I realized traveling within Tokyo, need to change many non JR lines or buses..did you buy the Tokyo Suica or other stored value Tokyo card? Then when leaving for another city, return for refund and buy another city's stored card when you reach there?

    Apologies for so many questions, first time traveling to Japan free and easy and can't find the answers elsewhere on net...thanks in advance for you recommendation!

  15. Hi Sam, thanks for the informative posts!
    I am planning a 7 days trip to Osaka. Thinking to head to Kyoto directly from Kansai Airport right after my arrival (my ETA is 1920) by Haruka Express staying for 2 nights before switching to Osaka downtown.
    Would you mind to tell how far away from the arrival hall at Kansai Airport to the Haruka Express ticket office and train's departure hall? (I wonder whether I should buy the express ticket departing at 2125.)

    Thanks and happy new year!

    1. hmm, it's actually just about a few mins walk from arrival hall to the JR ticketing area where u buy Haruka Express train tickets.