Having returned from 9 days in Japan, I feel like I not only need to share my adventure, but also take the opportunity to recommend—nay, insist!—that you take advantage of this nonstop travel destination if you’re stationed in Korea. I’ve heard mixed reviews on assignments in Korea, but as with most duty stations, it’s all what you make of it. And whether you just need to get away or if visiting Japan is on your bucket list, I’m hoping this overview will help guide you in the right direction.
No matter where you are in Korea, one thing is certain: you’re in a prime location in East Asia to do some serious traveling. Not only are you close to many Asian countries, but flying from Seoul is often direct and cheap! Though airfare to Japan from the States can be steep, you can fly direct from Seoul to almost any major airport in Japan in about 2 hours for almost one tenth the price. My recent trip to Japan took me from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka and back with my mom and both grandmothers in tow. Here is a rundown of some options in each of these locations, whether you choose to travel for a long weekend or several weeks.
When to Travel
In Japan, the peak season for tourism begins in mid-March with the beginning of the cherry blossom bloom, and ends when winter comes around in December. Not sure about you, but I’m not a fan of crowds and therefore prefer traveling during the low season. This is more feasible in some countries than others. For example, in Belize, the low season can coincide with the rainy/monsoon season. Not only can that be miserable, but you can’t partake in many of the adventurous things you went for in the first place.
Japan is actually a great place to travel year-round! Like most countries, winter is colder or milder in different regions. The northern island of Hokkaido probably has the coldest winters, but is also a world-class ski and snowboarding location. I traveled in March before cherry blossom season and experienced no unbearable crowds or issues with reservations. The weather was mild enough that I could travel with carry-on size luggage without having to worry about bulky winter clothing. Though I did bring a jacket, beanie and scarf, which were perfect!
The only other consideration you’ll have when picking travel dates is any events you want to attend, like festivals, or my personal favorite, sumo wrestling! Though most festivals coincide with peak tourist season, there are some great winter festivals, namely the Sapporo Snow Festival located in Hokkaido. These draw huge crowds but are true Bucket List events. Sumo, however, is held every other month beginning in January. The location rotates, but will be in Tokyo every other time. I chose to plan my trip around the Grand Sumo Tournament and attended the March tournament in Osaka. I pre-ordered my tickets two months in advance from BuySumoTickets.com and this worked out perfectly.
Where to Go
The options are literally endless here. Where to go will depend a lot on what kind of trip you want to take (sight-seeing, relaxation, fun, etc). As a broad, hand-wavy overview, Japan can be broken down into approximately 8 regions, which includes over 6,000 islands. There are really only 4-5 major islands that make up the vast majority of the landscape though. The northern island and region of Hokkaido is probably the least explored by tourists, but offers so much in the realm of winter sports, Ryokans (traditional Japanese guest houses typically with hot springs) and SAKE!!!! The main island includes tourist favorites like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, which is what I’m most familiar with from my recent trip.
Depending on how long you’re staying in Japan will obviously dictate where you can travel. Besides, you could spend your entire time in any of its cities and still not see and do everything, so you really can’t go wrong. If you’re travelling over a 4-day weekend, I’d recommend staying in the closest major city or prefecture to the airport you fly into. You can always take a day trip outside of these cities. For example, if you fly into Tokyo you could take a day trip to Hakone or Nagano.
The typical tourist route starts in Tokyo then goes to Kyoto. From Kyoto you can venture to so many iconic places and either fly out of Osaka or return to Tokyo. You can check out my 9-day itinerary for a more in-depth explanation of great things to do in these three cities. Additionally, one of my favorite Japan blogs and luxury travel sites that I used as inspiration to plan my trip is Boutique Japan.
I highly HIGHLY recommend using Airbnb to book your accommodations in Japan, especially if you’re traveling with more than two people. I never paid more than $35 per person per night with a group of 4, and the accommodations were all in perfect working order and CLEAN!
Hotels in Japan can be very expensive, but if you’re traveling by yourself for a short period of time, this might be a good option. The two advantages of staying in hotels are that they are much easier to find than a residential address (in many cities, there is no street address system), and hotels have a baggage delivery service so you can easily transfer between cities without schlepping your luggage through the subway.
By far the best luxury option is to stay in a ryokan. Not only are these relaxing, but the price typically includes breakfast and dinner, which most likely is done in the traditional kaiseki style. These elaborate and delicious meals along with the onsen (hot springs) are just a few of the reasons to stay at a ryokan. Though, if you’re on a tight budget, this is not a good option.
For planning purposes, I used the following criteria to pick the location of my Airbnb, and the same criteria can be applied to hotels: 1) within a 5 minute walk to either a JR line (see next paragraph) or subway line 2) centrally located to sights or activities I planned 3) near a 7-eleven or convenience store. Convenience stores like 7-eleven often have the only ATMs from which foreigners can withdraw cash.
Getting Around & Staying Connected
One of the best decisions I made for my trip was pre-ordering a JR Pass. This all-access Japan Rail Pass was created for non-Japanese citizens in order to boost tourism. It allows you to ride all lines owned by Japan Rail (aka government rail) and you can purchase it for 7, 14 or 21 days. There are specific rules for who can purchase this pass, when you can activate it, and how far in advance you need to order it. Once ordered, you will be sent a voucher that can be exchanged at any JR office, which I did at the airport. Using the pass is simple, as you just show it to the ticket officer at any gate.
When we ordered our JR Passes we also ordered a portable Wi-Fi through the same website, which we picked up in the airport at the company’s kiosk. Since this was my first trip here in almost 20 years, I wanted to have constant access to Internet in case I got lost. However, if you’re trying to save some cash, you could do without ordering one ahead of time, but just make sure that your Airbnb or hotel has Wi-Fi. All of my Airbnbs came with a portable Wi-Fi, and this is something you can see before making a reservation.
Well folks, that about sums it up! If you’re traveling from the states, I highly recommend buying your tickets at least four months in advance and using a Private Browsing window. This basically prevents your computer from saving your search history, so the internet has a harder time figuring out that you’re looking for tickets and you’ll get a more accurate reading of how much the flights actually cost.