(Part 2 – Tokyo is here)
Hey guys, long time no post. As you know, the direction of this blog has always been about saving money while getting the most out of it, so I figured it’s time to start publishing travel guides based on my experiences that will help you plan trips to maximize fun and minimize wasted dollah. My plan for these travel guides is to have the first part be about the planning, such as hotels and other things you need to book/reserve before you land. In the subsequent parts, it will include city specific content that’s more on the ground, such as restaurant recommendations and sightseeing tips. Without further ado, here’s the first part of my Japan Trip Guide.
- Time of the Year
If you haven’t booked the tickets flying to/from Japan yet, try to avoid any public holidays, as quite a lot of shops and restaurants don’t open during then. What’s worse, on some holidays there will be truck load of kids out on school field trips at the same exact tourists sights you’re at, alongside the never ending horde of Chinese tourists. You don’t know what hell sounds like until you’re sandwiched between screaming middle schoolers and angry Chinese aunties. Whatever you do, make sure you avoid Golden Week (late April to early May) like the plague, because the whole damn country will be traveling domestically around then and you will have a very very very bad time. Mark my words
Have a list of cities that you want to visit. If you have no idea, I would recommend Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto for a 10 day trip. If you want to go to different cities, make sure you’ve actually looked at the map of Japan and see how far apart they are, as that will impact travel times and costs. You have no idea how many people I’ve talked to who thinks Sapporo is near Osaka…
I assume you have booked the international flights to and from Japan by now. If you need help with that, refer to my other posts about finding deals. As far as traveling within Japan go, the bullet train is going to be your best option. You might think you save more money by flying a domestic budget airline such as Peach, Jetstar or Vanilla Air, but the truth is if you factor in the cost of checked luggage, getting to and from the airports, and the time it takes to get to the airport, clear security, and wait for the flights, trains are simply the better options. In additional to a la carte train tickets, you can buy train passes that could further reduce your costs depending on your usage. Check https://tokyocheapo.com/travel/transport/which-jr-rail-pass-to-choose/ for more info. There’s also this calculator to see the cost of a la care tickets vs JR pass. For example, If I arrive in Tokyo Narita Airport, spend a few days in Tokyo, take the train to Osaka, then take the train to Kyoto and back to Tokyo, the whole trip would cost me 32170 Yen if I include the subway tickets too. A JR pass is 29680 yen. If you plan on going to more cities like Kobe for some steak, then the JR pass is definitely a no brainer.
If you want to do Onsen, you would have to go to one of the onsen towns like Arima or Hakone for an authentic experience, and those are usually best accessed by trains.
One weird thing about Japanese hotels is that quite a lot of them charge by headcount. So a room could be $50 for one person or $100 for two. If you are thinking about doing a Ryokan, whether at an onsen town or not, it will most definitely be charging you by headcount, and most of them have kaiseki meals that are included in the exorbitant room prices.
Book hotels now, the earlier the better, especially for popular tourist months. For low-season, good hotels get fully booked 2-3 months beforehand. For high-season, you are looking at 5-6 months in advance. As far as hotel recommendations go, here are my experiences and those of my friend Eugene (highlighted in blue):
- Optimal Hotel areas
- Shinjuku – Middle of a lot of activity, drinking and eating and shopping, fancy hotels
- Shibuya – Has a younger crowd than Shinjuku, lots of eating and shopping
- Ueno – Cheaper, a bit more old timey
- Roppongi – More night clubby, if you are into that sorta thing. (If you are looking to meet local singles, better brush up your Japanese!)
- Tokyo Station – Super convenient
Here’s a map of all the different areas:
Last time I was there I stayed at Shinjuku, and while it was nice, I’m probably gonna stay at Shibuya next time since I really liked the vibe.
- Recommend: Grand Hyatt – “Room is AWESOME. Roppongi Hills is a great area to explore too. Right by subway station so pretty convenient.” Note that you can get 2 nights here(or any hyatt property in the world) for free with a hyatt credit card signup bonus.
- Avoid: Park Hyatt – Not even with your Hyatt credit card free nights. Not worth it despite being Tier 7 and being the setting for one of Bill Murray’s movies. The furniture and decor were sub part, and it’s in an inconvenient location. There’s shuttle to the Shinjuku station but it’s a hassle. I do have to admit that the view was pretty baller:
- Avoid: Hyatt Regency – Don’t pay money for this, but if you have annual free nights(Not signup bonus free nights) from the Hyatt card, this is an ok redemption, since you are capped at tier 4 and this one is tier 3. Location is inconvenient, like it’s big bro Park Hyatt.
- Avoid: Hotel Villa Fontaine Tokyo-Shiodome – “Room is very small and facility is old. Didn’t do much near the hotel. Subway station leads directly to the hotel so very convenient.”
- Avoid: ENAKA Asakusa Central Hostel – “Meh. Nothing much to say other than that it’s a capsule hotel with people of all ethnicities. Right in the heart of Asakusa so quite a lot of cute little souvenir shops nearby. Though at this point we’re pretty much in the GTFO mode so didn’t take too much advantage of that. 10 to 15 min walk to the subway station, though too bad at all considering it’s so close to where the action (in this area) is.”
- Avoid: Narita Excel Hotel Tokyu – The rooms are super old and have weird musty smell, doesn’t appear clean.
- Optimal Hotel areas
- Namba – Near Namba station is where Dotonbori is, the super famous food street with giant hanging Billboard things. Stay here if you wanna be within walking distance to the most trafficked area in town.
- Shinsaibashi – North of Dotonbori across the river is the Shinsaibashi shopping street, and this area is hopping too. If you find a hotel here, you will have easy access to pretty much everything.
- Umeda – This is the newly built modern “downtown” area, filled with modern shopping centers and fancy restaurants and modern food courts. Stay here if you wanna be on the modern part of Osaka, rather than the OG side. (But the OG side is a short subway ride away so it’s no big deal)
Here’s a map of all the different areas:
- Recommend: Hotel Sunroute Osaka Namba – pretty good location, right next to dotonburi, and clean rooms, and cheap. Can’t ask for more really
- Recommend: InterContinental Osaka – Now this is the creme de la creme of Osaka Hotels. Used 40k IHG points I got from the IHG credit card signup bonus, and let me just say it was a mind blowing experience. It’s unfortunate they raised the price to 50k IHG, per night, but if you have an IHG annual free night, def use it here. The location is good, in the middle of the modern namba shopping district, and it’s near the train. The inside was amazing, especially since we got upgraded to the corner suite due to the IHG status we had. Check out the pics:
- Recommend: Fine Garden Umeda – “Clean as far as love hotels go. Eye-opening more than anything. Has free-to-borrow in-house karaoke (with English, Korean, and a decent amount of Chinese songs). Interesting area since it’s in the middle of a really busy shopping (ahem red light) district. Around 15 minutes of walking from the train station, plus the need to walk through the crowds and saying no’s to all the suited-up pimps on the streets makes it the most inconvenient location in the trip.”
- Maybe: Onyado Nono Namba – I didn’t stay here but it was next door to Hotel Sunroute, so I took note. The facilities looked good and it’s a little pricier, but it has a more traditional japanese feel to it and has an in door onsen.
- Maybe: Daiwa Roynet Hotel Osaka Kitahama – This was my backup in my Osaka hotel search, saw many videos online an the rooms are nice and clean and the location is great.
- Recommend: Arima Onsen Gekkoen Korokan – “The entire facility is old and probably hasn’t been renovated since the early 90s, and it has the darkest and creepest ever arcade corner. Great kaiseki and service (so many Chinese tourists there. They even have Chinese speaking staff). Awesome onsen!!! Staying for just one night is a bit of a rush. Quite a trip to get there. And we definitely didn’t spend enough time in the rest of the town.”
- Recommend: Hotel Anteroom – It was around 7k yen for two people per night in October, which was a steal. It was a good 7 minutes walking from the nearest subway station but for the price, totally worth it. The facilities are also good and gives off a super hipster vibe. It also helps that we got upgraded since they ran outta the regular Semi Doubles.
- Avoid: Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura Honganji – “First ever Ryokan experience so it was fun. Room’s size is pretty decent, though no view, amenity is lackluster, and breakfast is just okay. Extremely helpful staff and pretty friendly to English speakers. Near the 2 Honganji’s deep inside a residential area. Interesting to walk around, though the walk to subway station took 15 minutes; not the most convenient location.”
- Make Restaurant reservations
A lot of restaurants in Japan require reservations, especially the expensive ones. I’d recommend making reservation at Kikunoi two months in advance if you are going to be in Kyoto, even though it’s pricy. The lunch is around $100 per person after tax and fees and it was one of the most memorable meals of my trip. I guess 3 Michelin stars is no joke.
Utilize your fancy credit card concierge if you want to make reservations but can’t speak Japanese or don’t want to pay the international call fee.
-CSR/CSP uses Visa Infinite which requires you to sign a waiver saying that you promise you won’t pull a no-show since it’s rude
-Citi Prestige uses Aspire Lifestyles (561-922-0158) and they are decently competent, granted you have to provide them with your hotel info since what they do is call your Hotel to ask them to make the reservation for you.
-If you work at Google you guys also have a concierge, but I heard they are incompetent so don’t bother
If you are too lazy to make reservations, that’s fine too. There are a lot of restaurants that don’t need reservations like Ramen Joints and Kaiten Sushi spots. Below are some of my favorite national restaurant Chains in Japan:
Ootoya – Super good Traditional set meals for under 1000 yen, way cheaper than the New York Branches and much better tasting.
Coco Curry Ichibanya – Good japanese Curry chain, good price, watch this and salivate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SP3xRhfRJJQ Just don’t get above spicy level 4 or you will probably die
Ippudo – you know what this is. Tastes better than NY branches, cheaper too. Also slightly better than the Shanghai branches, and a lot better than the Bangkok branch.
Ichiran – It’s decent, but not worth lining up. If you line up for this, you are putting yourself on the same level as a clueless tourist, and you don’t want that.
Mister Donut – get dat Pon De Ring, nice chewy texture, you don’t really get that kinda donuts in America.
Avoid: Yayoiken – their food taste bleh
- Research Sim Cards/ Portable Wi-Fi
If you don’t have Google Project Fi, get a local sim card or rent a portable wi-fi device. T-Mobile’s free international data doesn’t quite cut it since it’s throttled to 2G even though it says 4G/LTE on your phone.
The Sim car I had was the b-market unlimited visitor sim for 14 days, costed 2200 yen, but alas it was no more. Now they have a 5GB/21 days sim for 3480 yen which is a little on the pricey side: http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/english/ but they do ship to your hotel for convenience’s sake. It also is still the best choice for visitors, but check out all the options here and compare them yourself: http://prepaid-data-sim-card.wikia.com/wiki/Japan
If you want to get a portable Wi-Fi unit to share because you aren’t traveling alone, check out this guide: https://tokyocheapo.com/business/internet/rent-wifi-router-japan/
Sometimes airbnb hosts provide portable Wi-Fi units for residents, however I’ve read reviews online where the units have already exhausted their data allowance due to previous residents, so watch out for that.
(Do note that if you end up buying the b-mobile sim, you need to have a wifi connection on hand to download their apn profile from http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/english/site_ios.html , otherwise it won’t work.)
- Learn to read Hiragana and Katakana
It really helps when you go to a restaurant with an all Japanese menu, and it’s even better if you can read Chinese as parts of the Japanese character system is based on Chinese characters. I used Tofugu to learn, and I would recommend it as the picture based method really makes things easy.
In the next part of my Japan Trip Guide, I will go into details on city specific recommendations.
(Disclaimer: None of the credit card links above are referral links)