Planning a vacation in Japan for the first time?
Planning to go free and easy instead of following a tour group?
Going to different parts of Japan in a single trip?
Here’s a simple and easy guide for those who are planning for a trip to Japan for the first time!
Recommendations For Planning Your Trip To Japan
1. Booking A Flight
A good time to book your plane ticket is usually 6 months before your intended vacation dates.
I understand most of us are too engaged with work that makes early booking very difficult for us to do especially for those who can’t apply for leaves early.
Tips to help you to save your plane ticket cost:
1. Use Google Flights to check for affordable tickets to suit your budget.
Google Flights will scan for a list of cheap plane tickets that suit your criteria for flying.
Take note and choose if you want to have transit flights (cheaper but take note of the duration of transit) or direct flights (more expensive but save time)
Economy or Budget Airline? If the economy flight ticket is just ~$50-100 more than budget airlines and it provides better timing, direct flights and location, go for it. The upsells in budget may make it even more expensive than economy class.
If you can’t book now, use the tracker to track prices of the flight tickets. They will alert you if there are changes to the flight prices! Sometimes it the prices might drop!
Also subscribe to the various airline newsletters as they will issue out flight promotions for cheaper flight tickets!
2. Book directly from airline website to save agent fee booking
Make sure you surf using the Incognito Mode using Chrome to book your ticket (Airlines website tracks your location and cookies which they use the information to charge higher prices)
Use Shopback to see if you can get cash back for booking flight ticket (e.g Singapore Airlines) at the airline website!Get Shopback!
3. Take packaged Flight + Hotel If You Are Staying In 1 City
If you are only going to stay in 1 city (e.g Tokyo) then it might be cheaper or more convenient to buy packaged flight + Hotel.
Currently, I think Expedia (join member to get more discounts) combined with Shopback is a good choice for cheap booking with cash back (which means you get money back when you book hotels or flights!)
Also, if the hotel comes with included breakfast option, compare if it is value for money and try to take it as it will save you time trying to hunt for breakfast (especially there is no nearby supermarkets or convenience stores!)
4. Fly in and out from different cities, it may be much cheaper!
In personal finding, I found that flying in and out from different cities are cheaper than round trips from the same airport.
E.g fly from Singapore to New Chitose (Sapporo) and then out from Narita Airport (Tokyo) to Singapore
This will be useful for travellers travelling to different parts of Japan as it is more economical (you only travel in 1 direction).
5. Take Advantage of Credit Card Perks (Travel Insurance, Air Miles)
Some credit cards offer travel perks if you use their credit cards to book flight tickets.
If you have the Citibank Credit cards, you get complimentary travel insurance. Check here to see which cards are supported.
If your income is high enough or you fly frequently, then use a travel credit card to get or redeem Air Miles.
You can use the miles to gain free air tickets or fly first class for free. (see the best travel credit cards in Singapore)
2. Pack A Cabin Bag + Backpack
If you are travelling around Japan especially if you are going from city to city, it’s essential to pack small and light.
A recommended load would be a cabin bag and a backpack to bring around Japan as there are many long flights of stairs in Japan to climb.
I see many those who were carrying super large luggage were struggling to carry up their stuff up the stairs in the subway.
Also, most trains do not have much space for storage.
Advantages of packing light:
- You can run faster to catch the trains on time!!
- Cheaper to store luggage in train station lockers
- You don’t die carrying heavy luggage up endless stairs
- You are being considerate to other passengers
Unless you are going for a modelling shoot for Instagram or hoard lots of souvenirs back, I suggest carrying light.
If you need some more spaces when you are going back, get those foldable bags to keep in your luggage so you can check it in when you are going back.
3. What to Pack If You Are Going During Winter Season
Packing for winter can be a hassle as you have to carry extra clothing.
The important thing about wearing clothes in winter Japan is to layer your clothes.
Unless you are the Instagram’s “outfit of the day” person, you don’t have to bring lots of clothes even for many days.
If you are going to very cold places of Japan (e.g Hokkaido), you’ll need to wear more layers of clothes to protect yourself from the cold.
Here’s what the basic you should be wearing for temperatures below 0 deg celsius:
- 1st layer – thermal underclothes: Best and cheap thermal underclothes can bought from Uniqlo, buy the clothes with Heat Tech. (get long sleeves)
- 2nd layer – A jacket or long sleeve clothes.
- 3rd layer – A wind proof jacket with hood (to protect you and your head from cold winds and wet snow)
- Warm Scarf – to protect your neck from cold (very useful)
- Gloves – To keep your hands warm
- Head warmer – you’ll want to keep your head warm.
- Heat Tech Thermal pants (1st layer) – Can be bought from Uniqlo. Wear 2 layers of thermal pants if you are wearing Jeans.
- Wind proof pants or jeans – Wind proof pants help to keep you from cold winds if you are hiking up windy mountains. (Uniqlo is light and good)
- Heat packs – to put in your jacket to keep your hands warm. You can buy this from Daiso or 100 yen shops in Japan
- Winter anti-slip shoes – Pavement and roads are slippery due to ice forming in Hokkaido, wear shoes that are suited to reduce slipping and snow melting in your feet!
I recommend wearing the 1st and 2nd layer during flight (it’s very comfortable!).
Once you are in Hokkaido, put on the full layers.
5. Get a Mobile Wifi Router
It’s very important to get a Wifi for use in Japan as you need it often to plan for your routes and timing.
You can get free wifi around cities in Japan, but having a mobile wifi will reduce your frantic search for wifi in tight situations.
It is also helpful to pass time when you are on long journey train trips as there are no free wifi in the trains. You can use the time to plan for your next destination’s itinerary.
Plus you can share the wifi usage with your friends and family who are on the trip with you!
If you are from Singapore check out my review of wifi router you can get before flying!
6. Research and Plan Your Trip Using Google Map
Before you buy your plane ticket and go on a trip, you should plan the places you want to go using Google Map.
Planning is important as you can save money using limited duration Rail Passes to travel around Japan and look for important festivals or flower blooms to attend.
You may take 1 or 2 months to plan and prepare.
Collect travel brochures and surf travel websites to see what are the various attractions you should go.
Take note of any festivals or seasons as it may affect the cost of your travel.
It is usually it is more expensive and more difficult to book hotels/Airbnb for periods with major festivals. So book early if you want to attend such festivals!
Planning Using Google Maps
You can save the places you want to visit by starring them which makes it easier to track on how to get there when you are in Japan.
Unless you are a direction guru and a train otaku, you’ll need a GPS to tell you where to go. (This is where your mobile wifi becomes very useful!)
Google map on your mobile is a useful tool to help you in giving directions of places you need to go and also the train connections you need to make.
Trains in Japan are very punctual and knowing the timing will help you to make decisions on your travel route.
Book Your Hotels Early But Keep It Flexible
You may want to book your hotels/Airbnb early to lock in cheap rates or sales.
However, situations might change due to weather or change in plans.
So I recommend looking for hotels which have free cancellations so you can cancel and book another hotel if plans change.
In a more risky way especially if you are in Japan for longer periods, book your hotels when you are in Japan before your next city destination (you may find better hotel options or deals!)
Take note: Some hotels in Japan do not accept credit cards and only insist on cash payments. Do take note when you book your hotel and set aside the cash to pay for the hotel when you check out!
7. Save Money On Transport Using Rail Passes
If you are travelling to various parts of Japan, I recommend you to buy the Japan Rail Pass as it will help you save a lot on transportation cost.
There are several types of Rail Passes, some cover the regional parts of Japan (e.g., Kyushu Rail Pass), while you can also buy the Rail Pass for travelling to the whole of Japan.
The rail passes cover train transport serviced by JR trains which cover longer distances and costs more. So you can only use the rail pass for JR trains and Shinkansen.
Green Pass or Ordinary Pass?
There are two type of passes: The Green Pass and The Ordinary Pass
The Green pass allows you to take the reserved seating cabin of the train so you are guaranteed a seat but you need to reserve the seats before taking the train.
You need to reserve and get your ticket at the JR ticket sales offices. The downside is that you’ll have to adhere to the timing of train indicated on your ticket.
The Ordinary pass only allows you to take the free seating cabin which you can seat anywhere but if the train is full, you’ll need to stand for the whole journey!
The advantage of this is that it is cheaper and more flexible to take the train at any timing. (However, if it is the Japan holiday period such as the Golden Week, you may want to buy the Green Ticket instead as the trains will be packed full!)
You cannot seat in the Reserved Cabin if you are holding an Ordinary Pass. There will be train conductors to check your ticket. (Except for Narita Express train where although all cabins are reserved, you can seat anywhere but if someone has a ticket for their seat, you need to give up your seat to them.)
You can buy the 7 or the 14-day pass depending on your travel period. However, you cannot buy the rail pass in Japan.
You can only buy it in your country’s Japan tourism board and then exchange for the rail pass when you are in Japan.
My recommendation is to buy the Ordinary Pass if you are travelling on a normal or non-peak period for as it is cheaper.
Calculate the Cost Factor Using The Rail Pass Calculator
To calculate whether is it worth to buy the rail pass for travelling in Japan, use this Rail Pass Fare Calculator!
If you are from Singapore, you can purchase the Japan Rail Pass online from Changi Recommends and collect it from Changi Airport before your flight!
How to Exchange For Your Rail Pass Once You Reached Japan
After you have bought and collected the rail pass, you will be given an exchange voucher.
Once you have reached Japan, I suggest you immediately go to the JR exchange offices to exchange for your rail pass.
You can decide which date to activate the pass during your exchange. So plan your travel route carefully (use Google Map!)
You can use the rail pass for Narita Express trains if you land in Narita. It is usually quite expensive if you bought the Narita Express ticket (cost 3000 Yen) on your own.
How to Use the Rail Pass
You cannot go through the automated gates using your rail pass.
You’ll just have to show your rail pass to the office personnel just beside the gates. It’s just very easy.
How to Reserve for Hayabusa Tohoku Shinkansen (To/From Hokkaido to Tokyo)
Do note that if you want to travel to/from Hokkaido quickly via Hayabusa Tohoku Shinkansen, you’ll need to reserve a seat. They do not allow free seating.
You do not need to pay extra for the reservation for Hayabusa even if you only have the Ordinary Rail Pass.
All you need to do is reserve your seats at the designated JR offices.
I recommend you to reserve your seats for the date and time you wanted to travel immediately during your exchange for the Rail pass at the JR rail pass exchange office as a seat may not be guaranteed if you reserve late. (not a good thing to get stuck)
All you need is information on the date, time and destination from which station to which station (use google map to plan the future dates of travel).
Cheap Way of Getting to Tokyo From Narita By Bus
If you don’t want to spend money on getting the Narita Express, you can choose to take the Keisei Express bus.
It costs only 1000 yen and it can take you to Tokyo station and Ginza.
Due to its high demand, it is recommended to reserve your seat for the bus when you arrive in Narita.
Angela (internationallyME) has a Youtube video on directions to the reservation counter to reserve a seat for the shuttle bus at Narita Airport. (Very useful!)
Now you can spend the extra money saved on a few lunches or dinner!
8. Taking The JR Trains
When you are taking the JR trains to travel to another city, first use google map to check the timings of the train.
It will also indicate which rail platform to take from.
Then at the train station after passing the gantry, look up to check the signboards which will indicate the destination of the train that is travelling to, the track number and the timing of the departure of the train.
Confirm the information is right and wait at the right track number.
If you are holding the ordinary pass. Make sure to board the non-reserved cabin. It will be labelled as “自由”.
8. Recommended Items to Bring With You
Here are some of the recommended items that might be useful during your trip!
I recommend having a checklist whenever you are going on a holiday so you don’t forget what are the things you need to bring.
- Extra battery pack with cables (To charge your phone and wifi router)
- Converter plug (for use of electricity)
- Quick-dry towel (Useful for drying yourself after a bath)
- Vacuum flask (for storing hot water to drink during cold weathers)
- Medicine (In case you fall ill)
- Camera (to take beautiful pictures!)
9. Track Your Expenses and Keep Small Change
I recommend tracking your expenses while you are on your holiday.
This is a very useful way to know how much are you spending on the trip so you can avoid overspending your cash in Japan. (There are so many cute things and food to buy there!)
I use Trabee Pocket App for my phone so I can track what I’m spending on every day.
Keep the receipts and do your end of day keeping track of your expenses.
Another way is to divide the amount of money you can spend every day so if the money runs out, that means you have over spent.
Also, have some coins for paying bus fares, coin lockers and vending machines.
In buses, there is a small machine which you can exchange your 1000 yen notes for coins to pay for the bus when you get down from the front.
Always prepare your fare before alighting so that you don’t hog up everyone’s time trying to dig for coins.
10. Eating on Budget
Sometimes you may want to eat a simple and cheap meal where you don’t have to queue.
There are many stores which offer very delicious yet budget meals if you don’t want to spend too much for the day or tired of long queues.
They usually range from about 300 yen to 600 yen
Where: Matsuya, Katsuya, Yoshinoya
If you want to have a very budget cheap breakfast, buy bread from supermarkets after 9 pm as they are on discount! (delicious bread gets sold out quickly!)
For dinner, you can buy cheaper bento boxes or fried food about after 6 pm in supermarkets as they start to have discounts after a certain timing.
11. Finally! Enjoy Your Trip!
After all the planning, finally go forth and enjoy your trip!
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