The easy, yet still very enjoyable, way to travel around Japan is as part of a guided tour – everything planned by the experts, no language issues, smooth accommodation check-ins and transport transfers. Yet more and more people are choosing to plan and organise their own itineraries and trips in Japan. Of course the internet has vastly increased the scope for anyone, including first-timers, to do this, and to make a complete success of it. Following are a few suggestions:
Think about what your interests are, the kinds of things and places you’d like to see. For example, an architect would no doubt like to seek out some of the cutting edge housing and office designs, and plan a trip around visiting these. A horticulturist would want to work through a list of the country’s famous gardens, and depending on the season work in displays of cherry blossoms, hydrangeas or azaleas.
Art and history buffs can choose from numerous excellent galleries and museums to put on their list. All visitors can make a trip to Japan an unforgettable culinary experience. The point is, apart from just seeing a selection of sights, which in itself can make for a wonderful trip, any particular interests can be woven in to the itinerary.
This really is the key to planning a truly memorable stay in Japan, in relation to accommodation, towns, cities plus other locations to visit, along with adding in any places of personal interest. The internet and a good quality guide book are the best places of first resort, however special interests, such as buildings, might need to be resourced through other avenues, such as specialist magazines.
Travel and logistics
When undertaking research, keep in mind the logistics of travel in Japan. The most common method will be by train – using a Japan Rail Pass, either covering the whole network, or just a particular region, is often the best way to handle travel needs, although expressway buses can be quite good also. Air travel can be considered for longer distance hops between cities, due to its cost effectiveness, although at least one trip on the Shinkansen, bullet train, is a worthwhile experience.
Presuming the bulk of travel will be by rail, the most important consideration is to work out an itinerary that flows smoothly from one location to the next in relation to the railway network. There are lots of mountain ranges in Japan, and whilst there are hundreds of rail tunnels, the natural topography does to quite an extent determine the availability of rail services between any particular towns or cities.
Timetables are rigidly adhered to, but adequate time needs to be allowed for transfers between platforms, and some of the walkways between stations on the Tokyo subway system are hundreds of metres long. One other point about this system: care should be taken when selecting a station exit, to make sure you emerge at the closest point to your destination. Many stations are feeders for department stores above, so it can be easy to end up wandering through one of these instead of heading directly out of the station and beyond.
Driving in Japan for non-Japanese speaking and reading people can be problematic, but not impossible, especially for those adept at remembering kanji characters, such as for place names. As in Europe, there can be a special charm associated with driving along quiet rural roads, seeing the country at close quarters, stopping at will along the way. Caution needs to be taken with the speed limit, which on normal roads is 50 kmh, sometimes less.
In most places, apart from hotel lobbies, especially in the larger cities, and at ski resorts, English might not be available. It can be hit and miss. The proprietors of a traditional place of accommodation, such as a ryokan or minshuku, should not be expected to speak English, however it may be that they can, that for some reason they’ve spent the time over a number of years to acquire this skill. It might have been to gain a benefit for their business, or not, as they may receive sufficient custom from internal travel, which is often the case with such places.
If a need for assistance arises, the best chance of striking an English speaker, at whatever level, is at an information desk, such as at a large railway station, especially the JR counter, a hotel lobby, a large branch of a bank, a department store, and possibly a police outlet.
Accommodation and food
Japan offers a large variety of types of accommodation, ranging through the more traditional ryokan and minshuku, to European style pension, business hotels, standard kinds of hotels, onsen, and not to be overlooked, love hotels (refer the section on this topic). Not all of these would have websites, or English versions of a website, but there would still be thousands accessible online. As noted above though, don’t expect any English-speaking staff to be readily available, or much signage in English.
It is definitely worthwhile trying out one or more of the traditional style, for the original Japanese experience, which includes the cuisine provided for breakfast, and often also dinner, perhaps pre-booked. Accommodation and food can easily be highlights of any trip to Japan, in addition to whatever else it might be that attracts you there.
When staying in a hotel in a larger town or city, an alternative worth considering for breakfast is to go to a local coffee shop, or to purchase a selection of items from a department store or convenience store, and make a meal in your room. Department stores can also be a place to purchase a bento for the evening meal, for consumption in your room, with prices usually dropping as the evening wears on, say from around 6 pm.
When to go
Japan is a lengthy archipelago, even longer if Okinawa is included, however through each season there isn’t a great deal of variation from Kyushu through Shikoku to northern Honshu. There are four distinct seasons, five if the rainy season is considered separately. Spring, with its mild days, cooler nights and promise of warmer days ahead; a few weeks of frequent downpours and increasing humidity; hot, humid days and nights of summer; cooling, mild days and nights of autumn/fall; then cold winter days and nights.
From northern Honshu through Hokkaido weather patterns are different, with not much of a rainy season and little humidity through a noticeably cooler summer – but large dumps of snow in winter, fantastic for skiing. These are pleasant areas to visit in summer, but still quite manageable in winter with appropriate clothing.
For much of Japan, the least pleasant time to visit is summer, when days and nights are hot and humid. This isn’t a problem indoors, with extensive use of air-conditioning, but it can be energy-sapping for the traveller traipsing around outdoors. However it is nowhere near intolerable, and there are various delights, such as firefly viewing in August, to make up for it. Winters are cold, but not excessively, and easily navigable with suitable rugging up.
This leaves the two shoulder seasons, spring and autumn/fall, as the best time weather-wise to be in Japan. Each of these seasons also carries the bonus of their horticultural displays, with the often spectacular blooming and blossoms of plum, cherry, azalea, hydrangea, iris and others in spring, and the superb colouring leaves six months later.
Whilst each year the seasons come and go with comforting regularity, the weather within each season in any given region is also largely constant through the season, year after year. One phenomenon that can upset this regularity during the months September to November though are typhoons, which bring torrential rain and very high winds, stopping all public transport in the process.
What to wear
Talk of the weather naturally leads into clothing, and from the above comments it can be logically seen that clothing requirements vary greatly from one season to the next. In summer warm clothes are never needed, day and night, although care needs to be taken with temperature changes when moving from outdoors to indoors, where in some places air conditioning can be excessive.
Winter requires warm clothing outdoors all day long, but indoors in public places, and private homes once heating is turned on, will be comfortably warm. The rainy season necessitates a sturdy umbrella and waterproof footwear if outdoors activities are intended. Lighter weight clothing is adequate for the shoulder seasons during the day, but something additional after dark.
© Copyright 2014 SJ Peterson