We love to wander. To wake up each morning and say “hey what should we do today?”. We love being without a plan and letting the wind take us. However, it didn’t take long for us to realise that attempting to travel like this in Japan would be a rookie move if we wanted to stay on a budget. We needed to make plans in advance. This blog outlines some of the main reasons why.
There’s a reason why Japan isn’t usually included in backpacking trips. It can be bloody expensive.
We’d both always wanted to visit “The Land Of The Rising Sun” and the incredibly cheap flights on offer from Delhi to Tokyo made it totally irresistible.
To be honest, we booked the flights without having done much research. We booked a £140 flight to Tokyo and then said “why not?” to the £35 onward flights to South Korea 18 days later.
It was when we started to look into accommodation that we realised we really needed to get organised because although our trip was 3 weeks away, there was very little on offer that was affordable to us. We actually started to think that booking flights may have been a mistake. We wondered if heading to Japan would end up cutting our entire trip really short because of how much of our overall budget we’d end up eating into. We really weren’t sure if we could make it work without spending a fortune.
But we did.
In the end it came down to some serious research and a good understanding of how all the different elements of the trip were connected.
Here are some of the reasons we feel planning your trip to Japan in advance is so important.
You’ll Need To Decide Whether You Need A JR Pass
We had heard about the JR pass (Japan Rail pass), a train pass available to tourists. The JR pass can only be purchased from outside of Japan and without one, the cost of train travel can be extortionate.
However, the cost-effectiveness of the JR pass depends entirely on which trains you plan to take and over how long. If your trip only includes some train journeys, includes transportation not included in the JR scheme or is simply spread out over a long period of time, the pass may not be for you.
The JR pass can be purchased for 1 week, 2 weeks or 3 weeks.
In order to work out if you actually need one, the process is to plan your itinerary and research all of the ways to get from place to place. You’ll need to note down the cost of each journey, then check it’s covered by the JR pass and compare the total cost of your proposed journeys with the cost of the JR pass, to see what’s more cost effective. There are several calculators available, like this one, to help you work everything out.
Considering the cost of the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto costs Y13,080 (around £86) one way and a one week pass costs Y29,110 (around £193), you can see how quickly the pass can start to pay for itself.
It’s also worth noting that once you activate your pass (i.e use it for the first time) the clock starts ticking on your 1, 2 or 3 week limit. In other words, the first time you use it is day one and each consecutive day is part of your pass allowance time. So if you plan to spend a week in Tokyo and then travel all over the place in your second week, it may be that you decide to buy a one week pass and then just not start using it until the second week. You also need to be really certain that you can stick to your itinerary and not go outside your 1,2 or 3 week limit. So for example, we didn’t use our JR pass for our first 4 days in Tokyo, even though we made several train journeys, because we knew we would be making far more expensive journeys later in the trip which we wanted our pass to cover. For that reason, we only whipped our JR pass out when we left Tokyo for Hakone.
Accommodation gets booked up
So, you need to know your itinerary to know if you need to get the JR pass. On top of that however, you also need to come up with an itinerary which includes affordable accommodation. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to fork out a load of money because everything’s booked up. We came across several hurdles in this area. We thought we had a perfect route planned and then we realised all of the accommodation was way out of our budget, so we had to re-plan, re-calculate and re-check against the cost of the JR pass.
It was absolutely vital that we booked our accommodation in advance because it was simply flying off the shelves. Had we planned several months in advance we could have had an altogether cheaper experience, probably. That said, we came across a number of hostel beds that were going for around the £35 mark. We also really wanted to experience some traditional Japanese style Ryokans and Inns so we knew we had to get in there quickly before they were all gone. It has to be said, you do get a very high standard of accommodation in Japan, so you get what you pay for.
In the end we decided on this itinerary:
4 nights in Tokyo
2 nights in Hakone
2 nights in Matsumoto
2 nights in Takayama
2 nights in Kanazawa
5 nights in Kyoto
1 night Osaka
For this we each got a 2 week JR pass, an initial outlay of over £600 for two people. Ouch. To get this in Delhi, we had to go to H.I.S Travel where they were able to sort everything out for us. I must add that they were very lovely and helpful in doing so. Additional transport costs included the 2 day Hakone Free Pass for getting around Hakone, the train rides we took in Tokyo and our eye-watering £75 Taxi ride from the airport. Our plane was delayed which meant we had missed the last buses and trains.
You probably can’t speak Japanese
Another consideration is that although there are an incredible amount of tourist information points all over the main cities, most Japanese people we came across did not speak much/any English. And why should they? Unlike other places we had visited in Asia, it was not so easy to ask for advice or directions from random people on the street. People were certainly friendly and helpful to the best of their abilities, but had we not put in the prior research, there’s no way we would have been able to make our trip work by relying on the help of others.
Internet Access Can Be Unreliable
Another really important thing to consider is that although you can buy a Japanese SIM card on arrival, you may not, like us want to pay for one as they can be quite pricey. This is a really useful guide if you do decide to buy one. We headed into town to try and get one on our first day and the whole experience was pretty overwhelming and it felt like we were just wasting our day in a city we had no real grasp of. Our Air BnB host in Tokyo did provide us with a free portable wifi device to use while we were there which was handy and there is the option to hire one yourself.
Lack of SIM card meant we were mostly without internet, except for some wifi in certain shops and cafes or in our accommodation. Despite its technological advancement, Japan is severely lacking in free wifi, compared to a lot of other countries that we had visited. So instead of googling away to our hearts’ content, we relied on offline maps and our rather nifty spreadsheet with our incredibly detailed schedule on it.
You’ll Have More Time To Take it All In When You’re There
We made sure to include local holidays and festivals in our research so we didn’t miss out on anything that was going on when we were in Japan. We also took various day trips instead of necessarily staying everywhere we visited. Our itinerary included all of this information, as well as maps, addresses, costs, websites and anything else that was relevant. This meant we could crack on with our journey whether or not we had a phone or internet.
Now, just because we had a pre-planned itinerary, our time in Japan was by no means lacking in spontaneity or spur of the moment plans. In fact, because we had shelled out so much for travel passes we felt obliged to use them as much as possible. We wanted to make every day count and see everything there was to see. Despite the heat and humidity (we were there in September), we managed to cram in a lot of exploring. We’d done a lot of making-it-up-as-you-go-along travel as well as a few organised tours throughout our trip. It was actually really nice to try something in between, where we had the backbone to the trip on lockdown and we just had to decide how to flesh it out on a daily basis.
If anyone wants a more detailed version of our itinerary for inspiration, just let us know There are of course several blogs to follow with more detail on all the amazing places we visited.