Japan is one of my favourite countries in the world. It is rich in culture, everything is done in orderly fashion, people are really polite, food is good, and transportation network is excellent. It can be expensive, but as with any other destinations, affordability is relative and you can get by quite economically in Japan.
The highlights of Japan for me would be the train ride across the country. Japanese shinkansen (bullet train) network is amazing, with wide coverage, excellent on-time performance, exceptionally clean and of course the bento box. Food on train journeys are one of the things I really enjoy, try get something from Daimaru at Tokyo station before you board!
This is an all-inclusive entry of a 44 days trip around Japan between 11 February and 26 March 2017. All the itineraries, logistics, etc will be contained in this post. In 44 days, I managed to cover almost the entire Japan from Sapporo to Kagoshima, including about 10 days of snowboarding in 3 different places. It’s incredible easy to do long distance travel with the shinkansen. Of course, you’ll still need careful planning, to give you the most time available to explore the cities. I also cycled for about 90km along the popular Shimanami-Kaido route from Onomichi to Imabari.
A complete itinerary is available courtesy of Pebblar here.
Full photo album is available on Flickr.
A short video from the trip here.
Here are a number of essential things to be mindful of when traveling in Japan.
There’s only one drawback for the shinkansen, it’s super expensive. Luckily for us foreign tourists, we can get various JR Pass from Japan Railway or local train passes. Depending on where you want to go and duration of your stay, you can choose a train pass that suits you most, it’s available for 7, 14 and 21 days. It is cheaper to buy this pass outside of Japan, but at least starting in 2017 you can actually buy this in the country.
When you buy the pass, you’re actually buying a voucher that you then need to change into the actual pass, which mean it gives you the flexibility on when you want o activate the pass and when the day counter starts. This is important key point, because it allows you to tailor your itinerary such that you only activate the pass when you start doing long distance shinkansen ride, where it costs the most.
You can easily do a comparison of the JR Pass cost vs. your travel itinerary and the cost of buying separate shinkansen ticket. Hyperdia has an excellent website where you can check shinkansen price for individual routes (and even exclude ineligible Nozomi/Mizuho trains from the search, but untick this if you’re searching for Tokyo-Hakodate on Hayabusa, which is included in JR Pass). Then you can tally individual rides fare for your entire trip and compare that to JR Pass.
In my case, I spent my first week in Hakuba and Nozawa, and then a total of 2 weeks in Matsumoto, Takayama, Kanazawa and Kyoto. I didn’t activate my 21 pass until I left Osaka for Hiroshima when the train rides starting to be very expensive. So I took the local train or buses in the first 3 weeks. I plan my route this way, so that in the last 21 days, I basically cover anywhere from Osaka-Hiroshima-Kagoshima-Nagasaki-Fukuoka-Hakodate-Sapporo-Tokyo. Separate tickets for this route would easily be over JPY100k, which is why the 21 days JR Pass costing JPY60k makes sense.
JR Pass also cover a number of buses and the JR ferry to Miyajima. Please check this JR PASS for details. BEWARE that the JR Pass is not valid on the Mizuho and Nozomi lines, and there’s some other exclusions. Best is to check each time. Also, make sure you make seats reservation. On some routes, it’s not uncommon to have no availability, especially popular ones like Tokyo-Osaka or Tokyo-Kyoto.
Nobody lives dangerously without mobile data these days. Check this link for up to date information about prepaid sim card in Japan. In general I am against renting wifi router. Why would anyone do this? It’s not cheap, you have to order in advance, and the main issue is that you have an extra device to carry and to charge. Even with mobile phones these days, you can easily share with portable hotspot from your phone. Buying a sim card just easier.
You can buy prepaid sim card from the likes of Bic Camera or Yodobashi Camera. I find them carrying more options. I have personally used the IIJMio Japan Travel SIM Card and Freetel and both have excellent coverage. IIJMio has better timing flexibility since you can get 2GB/90days for around JPY4,000. Freetel gives more data, you can get 5GB/30day for around JPY5,000, which include free data for Wechat, Whatsapp, Kakaotalk, Line and Facebook. So it depends on whether you need timing or quota flexibility. If you’re coming from HK, you can also get Japan travel sim card from HK-based operators such as China Unicom, but they’re mostly for up to 7 days, and it will be slightly more expensive.
KURONEKO YAMATO / TA-Q BIN
Another important aspect of traveling in Japan for extended period of time is this shipping services. They basically provide fast delivery of your luggages, golf clubs, ski or snowboard gear, etc around Japan. Be mindful that they don’t store your items for more than 10 days though, so you can only ship them maximum 10 days in advance.
This was very useful for me, because I had my snowboard gears with me for the first week, and then I didn’t use it again until week 5. My airbnb host in Nozawa was kind enough to help me keep my gears for a couple of weeks, and then ship it to Niseko. Shipping was very cheap for about JPY1,500. Shipping to an airport will have a surcharge of JPY650. This service effectively allowed me to snowboard, go around Japan without having to carry gears around (which is basically impossible to do) and then ship them to Narita at the end. This is more cost effective then say storing them at the airport. Technically, I think you can get around the 10 days limit by shipping it around a couple of times (which is still cheaper than storage fees) but I didn’t test it.
Using this service is very easy, you can basically drop them at most convenience stores (7-11, Family Mart, Seico Mart, Sunkus, etc). I also found out that they don’t have weight limit for special items like snowboard, so you can load it up. My snowboard bags, plus all the gears and clothings was close to 25kg and it cost me only JPY2,500 to ship this from Kutchan in Hokkaido to Narita Airport.
DRIVING IN JAPAN
ToCoo is an excellent platform to book a car in Japan. They compare quotes from different provider, and often have discounts. Please also make sure you check if winter equipment is included in winter time, since add-on could be quite costly if added separately.
You need an International Driving Permit (IDP) (under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic) as a foreigner to drive in Japan. There are 2 main road conventions in the world, the 1949 Geneva Convention and 1968 Vienna Convention. Here are my IDPs from Indonesia (under 1968 Vienna Convention) and Hong Kong (under 1949 Geneva Convention).
Japan is a signatory of the 1949 Geneva Convention, and it doesn’t recognize IDP under 1968 Vienna Convention. I have verified this myself (unless it changes recently), and most car rentals won’t even let you rent a car without one. That’s why I went through the painful and expensive process of getting HK driving license so that I can get an IDP from HK, which is a signatory to 1949 Geneva Convention, and therefore, can legally drive in Japan. I have seen some comments on Indonesian travel groups where some people managed to rent a car with Indonesian IDP. You’re putting yourself at great risk by doing this. Why? You are basically driving without license, which means you are breaking the law, exposed to fines, but more importantly your insurance may be invalidated, and therefore, you are exposed to pretty much unlimited liabilities. Think twice and then many times more before you go ahead and drive without proper license.
In the case of Indonesia and HK, getting an IDP is a breeze once you have local driving license. You can get it within 30 mins in each respective country’s traffic department.
CYCLING THE SHIMANAMI KAIDO
One of the highlights of this trip, I cycled ~90km over 2 days from Onomichi to Imabari through the Shimanami Kaido bicycle route. The Shimanami Kaido highway links Onomichi in Honshu with Imabari in Shikoku and is a bicycle-friendly ~75km route across six islands of outstanding natural beauty. It has the longest series of suspension bridges in the world.
What an experience. Though I am physically ok, I haven’t really cycled this far, like ever. It was challenging, but very doable. The route is largely flat, save for the fact that you have to cross 6 bridges along the way, so climbing up those bridges can be challenging. Go slow, and take in the view and experience.
I started from Onomichi, rented a bicycle by the JR Station on the spot without reservation, there was plenty of availability. There’s also a paid locker room by the station to keep everything else you don’t need in this trip. The route is clearly marked (including distance left), so it’s quite hard to miss. So you don’t really need to plan the route, save for where you want to break the trip (book accommodation in advance) and how far you can bike for a day, know your limit, and start biking. Allow enough time to stop for food, take photos, or just chill at viewpoints especially near bridges.
While most I think break the trip with a stop in Setoda, I opted to stay in Sashima which is a little detour (hence the extra 15km distance) and finish in Imabari JR Station around late afternoon on day 2, to take the bus to stay the night in Oshima. This allows me to take the early bus back to Onomichi the next day, followed by shinkansen all the way to Hakodate!
If I were to do this again, I would recommend at least 2 nights, with a longer stay around Oshima or other nearby islands to just chill and enjoy the view. There’s also an onsen around 5 mins walk from Imabari JR Station which is perfect to pamper your tired legs after days of cycling.
TOP PLACES VISITED