How to (hopefully) get yourself to Japan in one piece.
I’m not really sure what compelled me to write this “guide” honestly. I guess maybe it was a combination of boredom and slight annoyance that if you want to go to Japan and see Idols there isn’t really many sources of up to date information on how to do so. Unless you’re into 46/48 groups anyway, which probably doesn’t apply to most of you reading this website. The bottom line is, I think I can probably cobble together something that’s halfway useful to hopefully one or two of you. If not, then I’ll probably get a few hundred hits from Google searches for my trouble. Win-win.
So this is going to be a 2-part series, initially at least. It’s going to focus more on people who would like to go to Japan but haven’t yet, but maybe you veterans will also find something useful too. I’m writing from my own personal experiences so everything might not apply neatly to your own personal circumstances but I’ll try to be as general as possible. Much of what I’m going to write about can also be applied to traveling elsewhere around the world too. Let’s give this a shot.
Have a Plan
Okay, so we’re going to start really slowly and as simple as possible. You’ve decided that you want to go to Japan. Great, you’ve done the easiest part of the process. From here things are going to get a little bit more complicated but that’s okay, unless you’re planning on going next week then you should hopefully have a decent amount of time to get things in order. In general, it’s probably not a good idea to plan an international trip on short notice, unless you’re an experienced traveler maybe.
When I say “Have a Plan”, I don’t mean for you to craft this incredibly detailed itinerary of your travel plans. If that’s your thing then go for it, but I personally don’t take that approach. That being said, if you’re going to shell out a bunch of money to go on vacation then you should probably have some idea of what you want to do. This can be as simple as just making a list of things you want to do and places you want to see. Or you can plan it down to the second and add bunch of stress, totally up to you.
When I went to Japan last November, I went very much with the mindset of going to as many concerts and wrestling shows as I could. How to do that will be in the next guide, but that was my “Plan” if you will. You don’t have to do that, but the main takeaway you should have from this section is “Pick some things to build your trip around”. This can be a big Idol show, it could be cherry blossom viewing, whatever you want. Just have some things you want to do before you get there. Not that’s it hard to find things to do, but going in with no plan on your first visit is not something I’d recommend.
There’s also no end of websites to look at for ideas on what to do while in Japan. Lonely Planet has a pretty extensive section of their website devoted to Japan, and the Japan National Tourism Organization also has a good amount of information. Just typing “visit Japan” into Google brings up 212 million results so I’m sure you’ll be able to find plenty of things to do with even the slightest bit of research. Have fun with it, but don’t try to do too much or you’ll be too stressed out to enjoy yourself.
How Long Should I Go For / How Much Money Should I Bring
These two questions are somewhat linked so I figured we could cover them together and kill two birds with one stone. When it comes to how long you should go for, that’s pretty much entirely up to you. If you’re an EU/US national for example you can stay in Japan for up to 90 days (for some EU countries it’s 180 days) so that’s pretty cool. If it’s your first trip out you probably aren’t going to stay for that long though but you have the option if you so desire. I would say go for at least a full week though as anything less would be a waste, with a stay of 2 weeks or so probably being the sweet spot for most people. Again, that’s all down to personal preference…and money.
“How Much Money Should I Bring?” is a very popular question when it comes to traveling. I’ve yet to see a good answer and that’s basically because there isn’t one. You need money to cover your flight and where you’re staying obviously, but after that it really does depend on how much or how little you want to spend. If you’re planning on doing a bunch of shopping and going to a bunch places or shows then I’d say set aside at least a couple thousand dollars or equivalent. I believe I spent about that much over the course of a 2 week trip but I wasn’t shopping that excessively or eating extravagantly.
Of course you can spend a lot less than that. If you’re only planning on going to some concerts, maybe a few museums and are happy eating convenience store food every day (it’s actually pretty good stuff) then you could probably get your spending down to the $1k range maybe. You always want to have more money than you need though. If you don’t spend all of it, you can always put it towards your next trip or whatever else you want to spend it on. You definitely don’t want to run out of money though, that would be pretty bad.
Other Things to Consider
When traveling pretty much anywhere in the world it’s usually a good idea to have some kind of internet service on your phone. Japan isn’t super big into free WiFi yet so you’re going to want a sim card with data or a “pocket WiFi” device. The service on both is typically provided by one of Japan’s larger telecom companies like NTT DOCOMO so they’ll work in most locations. You can rent or buy these things from various places, I personally use Global Advanced Communications but a Google search will provide plenty of options or you can even just buy a data sim when you get to Japan, assuming your phone supports it. Otherwise renting a pocket WiFi is likely to be your best option.
I’ll probably mention this a few times, but Google Maps and by extension your phone is going to be your best friend so make sure you’re familiar with using it. Perhaps invest in one of those portable power packs too so you can recharge both your phone and pocket WiFi on the go. Also consider installing something like LINE or Whatsapp if you think you’ll need to text or call anyone as most sim cards don’t provide texts or calltime. As long as you have a data connection they’ll both work just fine. While we’re on the subject of apps, Google’s Translate app was very useful for me, particularly the function of translating text in photographs that you’ve taken. It wasn’t perfect but it definitely helped out on more than one occasion. You can also use it to communicate with idols.
While I never had the misfortune of falling ill on my trip (I did have an altercation with the sidewalk but that’s neither here nor there), you should be aware of what you need to do if that does happen. I defer to Japan’s National Tourism Organization for further information on that as it’s too much to list here. On a related note, you should also look into getting travel insurance as it covers a huge range of things that could happen on your trip. I know some credit card companies provide it as a “perk” but there’s really no end of options on that front. Will you need it? Probably not, but I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
Okay, so we’ve covered most of the stuff that doesn’t have the most straightforward of answers. Let’s move on to two of the three most important things you need to take care of before your trip. Those are of course your flights and getting a passport if you don’t already have one. I’d recommend sorting out the passport first because you’re not going anywhere without one of those. I’m sure different places have different application procedures, but it takes a while so you probably want to apply for one fairly soon after you commit to going. There’s usually a fee involved so perhaps you want to factor that into your budget too. Also, while in Japan make sure to keep your passport on you at all times. It probably won’t happen, but the police are allowed to stop you and ask to see your visa documentation.
So you have your passport and now it’s time to book a flight. I’d recommend a flight comparison website, and I’m personally a fan of Google Flights but places like Skyscanner, Kayak and Expedia should all be fine too. Most also allow you to save your search and will alert you to price fluctuations, which I believe is fairly important to our American friends as their flight prices seem to change depending on which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps not as helpful to us Europeans as our flight prices are fairly static unless it’s a last minute type of deal.
There’s a couple of things to consider when booking a flight. Pretty much all of them have to do with the price and for most of us, we don’t really want to spend a ton of money to be fired half way across the world in a metal tube for some reason. First of all, don’t be married to flying to or from a particular airport especially if you’re in America. Flying from your small local airport can be more expensive than driving or taking the train for a couple of hours to a larger one (as can flying into Narita instead of Haneda for example). Obviously you have to decide for yourself if that additional travel is worth it. If you’re going to save a couple hundred bucks then I’d definitely give it some consideration.
Another thing to keep in mind is layovers and total travel time. That $500 flight looks mighty tempting, until you realize it involves a 38 hour travel time with one or more lengthy layovers in a foreign airport. If you’re down with spending 10 hours in a South Korean airport or wherever then fair enough. In general, and for the sake of your health and sanity I’d probably try to find a flight that gets you where you need to go in 20ish hours at most. If you’re trying to save money though there are airlines that will accommodate that desire. Bring a pillow!
Chances are we’re all going to be flying Economy class, unless you’re lucky enough to get a free upgrade or something. I’ve never flown business class but I’m not 100% convinced it’s worth paying several times the cost of an Economy class ticket. That said, if you’re a taller/larger person and you can upgrade to an Economy seat with extra legroom then that might be something you want to do. Long haul flights can be pretty punishing on the legs and lower back. I recommend getting up often to stretch and because of this I personally find it useful to snag aisle seats where possible.
Once you land, most likely a little sore and tired, you have a few options for getting to Tokyo from either Haneda or Narita. A “limousine bus” service operates between both airports and the city and it’s a fairly cheap (and direct) way of getting where you need to be. Trains also run similar routes, with Narita airport offering the faster Narita Express and Skyliner class of train. That being said, Haneda is closer to Tokyo (roughly 50 minutes by train) than Narita (80 minutes using the Express) so maybe that sways your decision slightly. It should also be noted that taking the train from Haneda requires at least one transfer on your way while Narita offers trains direct to Tokyo from the airport.
So we’ve covered flights and passports, now let’s talk about the other most important thing you want to get taken care of before you set off on your trip. Accommodation is pretty important, so important that I’m personally of the opinion that it should be booked before booking your flight. I’m not sure if that’s a popular opinion, but in my experience places to stay are going to be booked up faster than a flight will be. Of course you shouldn’t wait too long between booking both but if you don’t quite have the money then I would definitely take care of your accommodation first.
Much like flights, Japan has a wide variety of accommodation on offer and at a wide variety of prices to suit most wallets. You do very much get what you pay for though. If you’re down with living the hostel life, typically with up to 7 other roommates then you can have a shared room for $20 a night or maybe even less if you look hard enough. Hotels can range from anywhere between $50 a night, all the way to several thousand dollars a night. The lower end of this scale tends to be “business hotels” which is basically a bed and a shower although that’s a step up from a “capsule hotel” that’s basically the equivalent of sleeping in a coffin. Pretty cheap though.
When it comes to booking accommodation in Japan, pretty much every major hotel aggregation website will have a ton of listings. Some examples would be Booking, Trivago, Kayak, Hotels and Trip Advisor. These are all popular booking websites so places do fill up really quickly, sometimes even up to a year in advance if it’s during the summer or cherry blossom viewing season for example. You might also want to try your luck with AirBnB, a site that lets people rent out their spare rooms or even whole houses. There’s some good prices but the service does currently operate in a legal “grey area” in Japan so proceed with caution if you decide to go that route.
In all honesty, where you stay shouldn’t really matter too much. I’m not sure what other people do on vacation but when I go I don’t tend to spend much time in the place I’m staying. As long as there’s a roof, shower and bed that’s all I really care about. When I went to Japan the only time I was at the place I stayed in was either when I was sleeping or dropping stuff off that I’d bought. As always though, read reviews before you book anything. I personally give more weight to reviews that have been left in the last 6 months or so but just treat it like you would when buying anything else online (research, read reviews, etc) and you should be fine.
Getting around Japan is a fairly easy thing to do, providing you don’t mind walking and taking the train a lot. There are other ways too but let’s focus on the train first as it’s probably what you’re going to be using the most. For the most part the train will be your bread and butter, so booking accommodation near a train station would be a plus. The rail system, in Tokyo especially isn’t the easiest to figure out but after a few days you’ll hopefully get the hang of it. There’s a few apps out there for train times, the most popular probably being Hyperdia but I personally found using Google Maps of all things to be much easier (enter the station you are currently at and the one you want to go to for up to the minute train times). You’re definitely going to want one of these though because Japanese station attendants aren’t the most helpful in my experience.
Paying your rail fare is actually really straightforward. All you need is a Suica or Passmo card (they also work on buses, vending machines, etc), which is the size of a credit card and can be found in and topped up with money using machines located at most if not all stations. They’re a bit like ATMs and have an English option for their menus so it’s pretty easy to figure out. Once you have money on your card you place it on a card reader at the ticket barrier, catch your train to wherever you’re going and then place it on the ticket barrier at the other end and the fare is automatically deducted. Fares range from a few hundred to a couple of thousand yen depending on where you are going.
A few hundred yen here and there might not seem like much but it definitely adds up. That’s why a lot of people usually opt to purchase a JR Pass which gives you unlimited use of most railway lines for the duration stated at the time of purchase. This pass is of particularly good value if you decide to take a shinkansen or “bullet train” to Osaka for example as I believe doing so once or twice essentially makes the pass pay for itself. I think you can only use the pass on certain classes of bullet train though so that’s another thing to be mindful of. You also have to purchase the pass before your trip so get that taken care of if it’s something you think you’ll need.
Like previously mentioned, other forms of public transport such as buses, taxis and the like are also available. I didn’t personally use anything other than the train so I don’t have experience with such things, but you’re not going to be the first or last foreigner that the people offering these services have seen so I’m sure you’ll be in good hands. “Night” or “Highway” buses are also a cheap way of traveling long distances on a budget, so if a bullet train is a bit too heavy on the wallet, give those a look too. I believe you’re also able to rent a vehicle providing you have the requisite paperwork but I doubt anyone reading this is going to require that unless you’re planning on going on some crazy trip out into the middle of nowhere.
Ultimately apart from the train, what you’re going to use the most when getting around in Japan is your feet. That might not sound very appealing to you if you’re used to driving everywhere but that’s just how it is. If you want to see stuff, go to shows or whatever then you’re going to have to walk a decent ways away from most train stations. With that said I would recommend investing in a comfortable pair of shoes, possibly of the running variety because trust me your feet and legs will thank you for it. Japan is a cool place to explore but you’re going to have to put a little work in to do it.
Seriously, have fun. Most of you are probably still pretty young so enjoy your youth while you have it. If an idiot like me from the middle of nowhere in Scotland can plan a trip and go to Japan, anyone can. Sure it takes a bit of work but it’s well worth it. Do you really want to be 40, tied down with a mind numbing job, a family, a mortgage and constantly wondering if you should have done something like this while you were in a position to? Think about it.
I think I’ve covered all of the big stuff in this guide. Hopefully it’s of some use to some of you, if not then sorry for wasting your time here. If there’s anything else you would like to know or there was something I didn’t explain well enough, please do feel free to leave a comment or send a tweet to @idolisshit on Twitter and I can update this thing easily enough. Also, feel free to send questions about seeing Idols in Japan, that’s something I’m planning to work on next.