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How to Plan a Trip to Japan Efficiently

NJ is Language Arts teacher of 14 years with a BA and MA in Creative Writing from CUNY-City College of New York.

The Land of the Samurai

Going to Osaka Castle was one of the highlights of my honeymoon trip because a samurai drama on Hideyoshi, the ruler who once lived in the castle, was what originally ignited my interest in visiting Japan.

Going to Osaka Castle was one of the highlights of my honeymoon trip because a samurai drama on Hideyoshi, the ruler who once lived in the castle, was what originally ignited my interest in visiting Japan.

Trip of a Lifetime

After stumbling upon a subtitled episode of a Japanese historical drama one night while channel surfing, I was hooked on the idea of visiting Japan. I watched every travel show I could find on Japan... even kept a tour brochure next to my bed and fell asleep many nights planning my Bucket List trip. I dreaming about visiting famous temples, looking at national treasures in museums, and taking in the sight of Mt. Fuji in person.

For me, opportunity knocked when I married a native Japanese person. We decided to spend our honeymoon visiting their native country. The trip provided a way for me to meet some of my new relatives and experience my fantasy vacation. Having such a limited amount of time for site seeing and connecting with family, though, we had to plan the trip carefully to make the most out of every moment.

Get All of Your Travel Documents Early

Before buying tickets, make sure you have the proper travel documents, such as passports, visas, and if necessary, health test results. Why get the documents first? Although processing can be expedited if necessary, you want to give yourself enough time to resolve any issues that might arise and to receive your documents if they must come through the mail. You definitely don't want to find yourself moments away from your anticipated flight without your travel documents. For my December trip, I submitted my documents for my passport in October.

Prior to that, however, I did have a bit of back and forth with the State Department because I'd never had a passport before. It took a few tries before I was finally able to submit my paperwork in October. So, it is probably best to say I started the process sometime in late August or September. As a newlywed, I had to make sure I had documentation in my name prior to getting married to prove I existed as a person, in general, and then documentation in my new married name to prove that, well, now I was married. We purchased our tickets in November. Lucky for us, our destination wasn't a hot spot, so we didn't need to get them months in advance. But if your destination in Japan is the site of a big event, you might need to get your tickets earlier than we did. My passport arrived with weeks to spare.

There were no world-wide health emergencies going on back then, so we didn't need health certificates. However, in today's world, such things are needed, and appointments can be limited during busy travel seasons. Make sure you plan your screenings so that you get your results in time for your flight. Check, check, and recheck the entry regulations as it gets close to your departure date. Things can change overnight if the Ministry of Health decides it is necessary. Have a plan, a place, and extra time built into your vacation for Quarantine Regulations if they are still in place by the time you arrive.

And lastly, if you need any kind of testing or Quarantine to go back home or to continue your journey, arrange for that early as well. You want the next part of your trip to be just as smooth as your trip to Japan. Both Narita and Haneda Airports offer COVID testing if you need it for your return flight home or to fly off to your next destination. Check when making your travel plans to see if any of the smaller airports you might be using offer similar services.

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Plan Your Itinerary with Time in Mind

Consider the locations of the sites you want to see, how much time you'll likely need to reach those places from your start/end point, and how much time you want to spend there. That way, you can use your limited time more efficiently. We planned our trip according to which relatives were available to hang out with us, what time we had to check in/out of our hotel, and what time we had to catch our train. When we arrived in Japan, we stayed in Osaka first, allowing us to spend a day with family and hang out at Osaka Castle for a while. Later, we were able to check out the other sites on our own using public transportation. By the time we were done site seeing, it was final check out time. Then, we were off to another city by high-speed train, (shinkansen) for visiting more relatives and more site seeing. Mt. Fuji can usually be seen from the train on a clear day on shinkansen routes that pass nearby, although on cloudy days it will seem to disappear due to a weather phenomenon. As a geology otaku (think "super fan"), seeing the dormant volcano and its cones was a special treat.

Sample Itinerary

By planning out your schedule ahead of time, you can make the most of your time in a particular area. Japanese train schedules are exact, so you can factor in travel time to and from sites down to the minute.

DestinationTime to SpendTransportation

Osaka Castle

1-2 hours

train

Downtown Osaka

1-2 hours

train

Osaka Aquarium (Kaiyukan)

3-4 hours

train

Sites in Osaka = 3

Time needed = 5-8 hours

Travel time - Check train schedule. More than one train line may be involved.

Communicating with the locals

If you don't speak Japanese, learn a few basic phrases. There are plenty of phrase books out there designed for a person making a first trip. Travel websites designed by makers of travel guides may also have cheat sheets made up of the most useful questions and phrases a traveler might need. Although I'd been reassured that there would be plenty of signage in English, I made it a point to study basic Japanese phrases before my trip. By the time we arrived, I could have asked for directions in Japanese on my own. Yes, I spoke Japanese with an American accent thick enough to eat with a spoon, but local people and new family members understood me well enough and appreciated my efforts. Knowing I could communicate somewhat made me feel more confident when I walked around Tokyo, and later Fukui City, alone. A traveler should know how to ask for directions if they get separated from their tour group, or if they are traveling alone. My meager abilities were useful years later when I needed to buy over-the-counter medicine for my child on another family trip. I was able to have enough of a conversation with the worker behind the counter to get the right medicine for my child's symptoms. Again, I used very few words, but I made sure my needs were clear.

So Many Sites

One of the temples I was able to see because of the way we planned our site seeing. This is Niomon Gate at Naritasan Shinshoji Buddhist Temple in Narita City, Chiba Prefecture. We stopped here on our way to Narita Airport at the end of the vacation.

One of the temples I was able to see because of the way we planned our site seeing. This is Niomon Gate at Naritasan Shinshoji Buddhist Temple in Narita City, Chiba Prefecture. We stopped here on our way to Narita Airport at the end of the vacation.

When Traveling to Japan

  • Give yourself enough time to obtain all necessary travel documents and tests. Rules and requirements change frequently.
  • Plan your itinerary by considering travel time to/from sites. Local transportation follows a very exact schedule, and you could easily miss your ride if you are even a tiny bit late.
  • Make sure you have a plan for asking for basic directions or your needs in Japanese if you don't have someone in your travel party who speaks Japanese. You don't need to be fluent, but knowing a few phrases helps immensely since not everyone knows English. At least, carry a phrase guide with you. You can point to what you want to know if you can't pronounce it. The person trying to assist you can read the Japanese translation next to your language and understand what you are trying to get across.

Thinking Back

That first trip was many years ago, and I've been back to Japan several times since then. When I think back, I wish I'd worried less about finding food. It turned out that there were plenty of vegan/vegetarian options available. In the years since that first visit, tourist websites and restaurants in Japan have begun to make allergy information available for potential customers, as well as try to get the word out that vegan/vegetarian dining is possible. This was a major consideration for our later trips when my allergies got worse and my dietary needs changed.

What made that first trip so memorable, though, was the feeling that I'd found a piece of myself that I hadn't realized was missing. I'd finally been able to see and touch some of the things I'd been dreaming about from the days of the tour brochure I'd kept by my bedside before I got married. I fell asleep feeling complete when I got back home.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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