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|
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|
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
Every couple of days, I'd go check out websites of airlines like Singapore Air, ANA, JAL, Delta, Scoot, Jetstar...etc...to 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|
|Keio Plaza hotel at Tokyo where I stayed during my March 2013 trip|
|Our room at Nakajimaya ryokan at Nozawa onsen in Nagano during our Dec 2012 trip.|
|Capsule hotel Kua House at Kobe where I stayed during my Sep 2012 trip.|
I also use websites like Booking.com, Japanican, Rakuten, and Jalan.net 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, Sapporo, Tohoku, Sendai, Nagano, Tokyo, Yokohama, Fuji Five Lakes, Hakone, Kanazawa, Gifu, Osaka, 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|
|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.
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|
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:
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! :)