Summer in Japan. How can I make this happen?
October 24, 2012 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Traveling to Japan this summer with my sister. Help me make this the best trip ever and not lose my mind.

My younger sister is graduating from high school this coming year and, to celebrate, we want to take a long vacation to Japan before she leaves for college. As it stands right now, we plan on leaving mid-June and staying 30-40 days. My sister is proficient in Japanese while I have a basic grasp of numbers and simple phrases. I'm working on learning more but it's slow going.

The thing is, I've been pouring over tourism books and internet travel guides way too late into the night. There is just SO much to do. We've also been debating flying into Cambodia/Laos and spending some time there before taking a ferry over from China. Or should we just spend the entire time in Japan? Food is a big focus of the trip for me. My sister is very interested in more traditional aspects of Japanese life. We love hiking/camping. This question helped some but I'm still looking for more ideas.

We would like to travel on as tight of a budget as possible. We're interesting in WWOOFing for a week or two so if anyone has any location specific farms that would be appreciated. Where should we stay? Is the railroad pass worth it? What airline is the best/cheapest to fly with? We'll be coming from Seattle if that changes things. What should we budget? We were thinking $2-3000 but that seems like it won't be enough the more I read about Japan. I just need some suggestions and a place to get started from. Thanks for saving my sanity in advance.
posted by Marinara to Travel & Transportation around Japan (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I flew Asiana Airlines from LA, via Seoul (now Inchon) to Hiroshima. I recommend this route, and it might be cheaper than going through Tokyo. I loved the service on Asiana, I remember it as a very comfortable flight.

One thing to remember about rail in Japan is that there's no place for luggage on trains. They have an intricate system of forwarding luggage by courier. So pack light!

There were tons of things to see in the Hiroshima area (other than the Peace Park). Miyajima Island, Kintai Bridge, and just hanging out in grocery and department stores.

There are Youth Hostels there, and I'd take advantage of that, the rates seem outrageously great. You can meet other folks!

The Japan Rail Pass seems like a great deal as it includes bus, rail and ferries (like to Miyajima Island, to pet the tame deer). There is the question of having the pass for the entirety of your trip as the longest time frame appears to be 21 days.

As for food, yes, they have expensive as hell cantaloupes in the grocery stores, but they also have regular cantaloupes at about the same price as you'd pay in a supermarket in California.

To save money on food, think 7-Eleven (oddly ubiquitous), Ramen, Mr. Donut, and other fast-food, street-food kinds of things. You don't have to spend a fortune and you don't have to eat crap.

One thing I discovered was that the quality of the food was pretty good, no matter where I ate it. Curry Rice at the train station, Curry Rice in a department store, all pretty great. So pick the cheapest one and eat there.

If you plan on visiting a lot of shrines, you can buy a "passport" kind of book, and then you can get a specialized stamp from every shrine you visit. My mom has one and it's mega-cool.

Don't spend too much time in Tokyo (you'll go broke), but get out to other parts of the country and check them out.

At any rate, this sounds like a neat adventure. Have fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:42 PM on October 24, 2012

The rail pass is a great deal. We spent nearly three weeks in Japan and saved a lot of money using a 7 day rail pass for the chunk in the middle (we flew into Tokyo, spent time there and some day trips (Nikko, etc.) then went to Yokohama where we activated the rail pass. We did have to pay for a separate ticket for the last trip from Hiroshima to Osaka (we flew out of Osaka) but we saved a bundle on all the stuff in the middle.

Also check out the International Villas. They are open to foreigners, and the one we stayed at on Shiraishi Island was superb, and we wanted to stay longer.

Japan is gobsmackingly expensive, so take that into account when budgeting stuff.
posted by ambrosia at 1:40 PM on October 24, 2012

Stick to Japan... I do this when I travel too (I'll already be in Asia, I'll just go to X too... and X! and X!). You will drive yourself crazy, and it will make it more expensive. There's enough in Japan to keep you busy =)

The food is awesome... ALL of it. Bento boxes from the convenience store are amazing. Your budget will not prevent you from enjoying the food!

I lived in Japan for a year, and WWOOFed too! All my suggestions will be around Central Japan (Nagoya area) as that's where I lived, but I've been to Tokyo, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, through to Kyushu and the first couple little islands. You will LOVE it. I spoke a little Japanese (kindergarten level); but you don't need to - signs, train maps, etc are in English. I'd aim for $3000; and woofing will definitely help your money stretch as it's basically free (take a gift for your host - sweets, tea, something from home that kinda thing).
=) I will try to dig out the farms we worked at and memail you later.

Given your's sister's interest (and hiking/woofing), if you're going to splurge at some point, I'd check out the NPO Chiiori Guesthouse.

I highly recommend walking the post trail between Magome and Tsumago. Not a "hike" but a beautiful walk, with two small traditional towns on each end.

Also Takayama - preserved downtown (the pictures show the retro side, but there is a more traditional area too) AND a preserved village (Shirakawago). The hostel here is in a Buddhist monastery.

This looks like a fun place to visit too!

Hike Mt. Fuji! =) =) Totally do-able, but it's a *hike*. We started from the first station, but most people start from the 5th. If you're nature dorks, watching the vegetation change between stations 1-5 is incredible. Start first thing in the morning if you leave from the first station! (I think we took the Fujinomiya trail.)

My flickr pictures of Japan are here. Memail me if you have specific questions.

Some internet cafes have overnight booths - we did it once! Super cheap, enough privacy to sleep... watch movie, do your email, etc. They had showers, a comic book & video library, a curry place that delivered, and a bright "sunny" room with a "stream" in it for a foot-onsen, and an oxygen room! Definitely an "experience"

We also used the night buses to save money... they have reclining seats!

Kyoto is great too. I had a mediocre experience of Osaka, but I don't think it's Osaka's fault (and anyway, I lived in Nagoya which isn't dissimilar). Tokyo is expensive and I found it kinda overwhelming - too much to do! But obviously, it Tokyo.

*Gah* - so jealous, I want to go back!
posted by jrobin276 at 2:19 PM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

$2-3000 sounds low to me for 40 days.... unless you mean that amount each? That might be doable.

For transit, the rail pass is worthwhile if you're doing a lot of long-distance travel and you care how long it takes. A single shinkansen ride can equal almost the cost of the entire rail pass. Since you're staying so long, though, you might want to bite the longer duration of travel like overnight highway buses, which can be fairly cheap and are absolutely much more comfortable than North American long-haul buses. You could get away without the rail pass by spending longer periods in fewer locations, and using highway buses to travel. (For example, you could stay busy for at least two or three weeks in Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and day trips around them, and then move on to the next locale.)

If you'll be in Japan after July 20, also consider the Seishun 18 Kippu (Youth 18 Ticket), which people of any age can use. It gets you 5 days of unlimited travel on LOCAL trains for about $120. This is incredibly cheap but eats time--for example, the trip from Kochi City to Kyoto takes 11 hours (it doesn't include any kind of express at all ever) and included I don't even remember how many transfers. It's definitely not for everyone! But I really enjoyed rattling around Japan, enjoying the view and chatting with other riders on the same ticket (often retired folks). Since it sounds like your sister is up to conversation in Japanese, it might be a neat experience for you too.

Where to stay: Hostels for sure, but look outside that box as well. For example, in Osaka's rather sketchy Shin Imamiya area (near Spa World, which btw you really must go to), you can get a room in a business hotel for about ¥1500. I discovered this by flying into Osaka and booking a hostel in that area for ¥3000 or something like that, and on the way there from the train station started kicking myself when I saw all of the sandwich boards advertising ¥1000 and ¥1500 rates. I tried them out the night before my flight home, and they were really no different from the more expensive place! Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the one I stayed in, but it was "sun" or "taiyo" something. Anyway, the point is there are deals to be found if you persevere.

For people who like the outdoors and are travelling to Japan, I always plug Shikoku. The local food is great and a little bit different, the people are super friendly, and it's a great place to go for amazing natural beauty without a big crowd of fellow tourists. Check out the 88 Temple Pilgrimage for some hiking ideas. There's a lot of farming, so it might be a good spot to WWOOF, but I didn't end up doing that so I can't speak to it specifically. (It will be EXTREMELY HOT while you're there, though!)

Have a great trip, I too am jealous!
posted by snorkmaiden at 3:24 PM on October 24, 2012

Learn the following phrases in case you are ever parted from your sister:
+"___ doko" = where is ____ ,
+"eki?" = station?,
+"manga-kisa = comic book & video library"

Almost everybody in Japan learns some rudimentary English in school and are constantly barraged by American culture. They may not appear to know much (embarrassed/shy), but by knowing those few words you can generally get around ex: "bus - doko" or "hostal - doko" etc. Note that local bus schedules are harder to understand on the spot, but if you can reach a train station you can get virtually anywhere by looking at the user friendly maps & romaji translated signs (you can also ask the station master for directions - one in almost every station).

Food is wonderful in Japan. They serve it in smaller portions and is often more expensive compared to the US. The cheapest places are convenient stores, but if you get tired of that you can eat reasonably cheap at a variety of more low-key places (ramen shop, donburi place, family restaurant, etc). Follow the salarymen! FYI, the traditional food that looks gorgeous - beautiful bento box filled with pretty shapes & sizes are pretty bland and disappointing.

No comment on rail-pass.

As far as budgeting, the current rate is 1USD = 80 yen. If you are staying 30 days / $3000 (Per person I'm assuming) that comes out to $100/day or 8,000 yen/ day. It really depends on what you want to do and how much traveling you are planning to do, but the figure seems really tight. At minimum I'd shoot for $10,000/day, considering this is your first time. Note that Japan likes payment in cash, but there are plenty of ATM's around (be sure your card will work there first).

Other advice - Stay away from locals with tattoo's, be brave and go to a bath-house/onsen, and chat up as many locals as possible (the younger generation are fascinated by american culture). Enjoy!
posted by rossenterprises76 at 3:43 PM on October 24, 2012

I think you'll need to be pretty budget conscious, especially when it comes to places to stay. Lodging in Japan can be stupidly expensive. There are hostels in some areas, though they usually come with rules (curfews and such). The rail pass is a definite money saver, as long as you're planning on using it to make some long distance trips.

Definitely get out of Tokyo. It's a fine city, but it's still a city, and it's not all that unique when it comes to that, either.

My first visit here was on a school term abroad, and we spent a month here, two weeks in Tokyo and the surrounding area, and two weeks in Kyoto. I definitely felt like I wanted to stay longer in Kyoto, but I was okay with moving on from Tokyo. Kyoto, Nara, and that area can be a delight to look around.

If you're doing the WWOOFing thing, that might help, at least a little, with budget in terms of a place to stay.

Honestly, if you've got that much time, there's no end of things you could see and do. I've been to Kyoto several times, and have a bunch of suggestions, but I've lived in Kanto (Chiba) for my whole time here. If there's anything I can help you out with when it comes to Tokyo and the surroundings, feel free to MeMail me, and I'll see what I can do to help you figure things out. I think you could have a pretty amazing time.

One thing, if you get the chance: summer is high time for festivals, temple and otherwise, and beachgoing. The festivals are literally can't miss. I've gone to the Narita Gion Matsuri (same town as the airport, the weekend closest to the 7th of July) every year that I've been here, and I will continue to go as long as I can. Festivals here are drop-dead awesome. The beach is pretty amazing too. Lots of fun to have in the summer, but yeah, it's brutally hot.

Oh, last thing: when family and friends came to visit for my wedding, they were stunned by how much walking I wanted them to do, and they really, really couldn't keep up to what I thought was a pretty normal pace. If you don't walk much, start walking a bit every day, and add to it as you go along. A day sightseeing in Kyoto can add up to miles pretty quickly.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:09 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could see the whole country in 30-40 days with a Japan Rail Pass.

In terms of farm stays, One Life Japan is a great place to start, and I'm sure Kevin can give you pointers on other places to stay.

One Life is located in Nagano, but on the Japan Sea side, so it's actually a convenient location for either exploring Nagano and the Alps, or traveling up or down the Japan Sea coast.

Probably the best vacation of my life was spent traveling from Kyoto to Tohoku on the Japan Sea Coast - I've done it by train and by car. Train is a little slower, but the Japan Sea coast of Honshu is incredible, and off the beaten path. And there are plenty of beaches.

We went to the Shonai region of Yamagata (twice) to visit the Dewa Sanzan holy mountains. When we had a car, we traveled southeast over Kurikoma National Park to Hiraizumi in Iwate.

On the other end of Honshu is Hagi, in Yamaguchi. It's an old castle town on the Japan Sea with plenty of old mansions - great for walking, plus there are bicycles for rent.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:29 PM on October 26, 2012

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