Traveling: Getting Ready to Travel!

© LINE Corporation

© LINE Corporation

It’s the end of the school and fiscal year in the Japan, but if your social calendar is anything like mine, it’s not a time for rest! On the Japanese side of things there’s graduations, new students, and new hires to celebrate.  On the expat side, old friends will be leaving to return home or move on elsewhere and new expats will be moving over in their place, with a string of sayonara parties to pay your respects at and parties to welcome the newcomers.  If you’re staying put in Japan, chances are like most Japanese you’ll be traveling somewhere.

No matter if you’re just arriving, staying put, or leaving, I’d like to share with you some good tips that I hope you’ll find useful during your next travel.

Buses

While it’s true trains and the shinkansen are more popular to get to where you want to go in Japan, a lot of foreigners often overlook the ease, convenience, and low price of buses.  Buses that travel long distances are called highway buses or kōsoku buses.

From our nearest station to Tokyo it’s only 2,000 yen or less each way, which is even cheaper than the local train!  It’s also faster.  While the local train would take up to 3 hours and involve a couple of train changes, the bus only takes about 2 hours in normal traffic and usually they make a pit stop at a rest area with food and bathrooms.  It’s actually not much different time-wise from taking the shinkansen once I factor waiting for the local train to take me to the nearest shinkansen station, waiting for the shinkansen to come, and then riding it an hour to Tokyo, but by riding the bus I save about 2,000 yen ($20 USD) each way.

The bus to Narita costs a little more and adds another hour to the trip, but it’s still faster and cheaper than the local train line.  Plus I love not having to change lines with my luggage, the scenic view from the bus window, and not having to worry about missing my stop if I doze off.

Unless you live in a really rural area, chances are there’s a number of buses that will take you to neighboring prefectures, cities, the airport, or to Tokyo.  I think the longest trip I’ve taken by bus was an overnight ride to Tokyo to Hiroshima that clocked in at 12 hours.  To some that might sound terrible, but buses in Japan are much better than taking the Greyhound back in the States.  With the cabin dimmed for sleeping and the multiple pit stops to grab a bite or stretch your legs, it was pretty nice.  Taking the shinkansen would have put me back 20,000 yen ($200 USD) and taken 4 1/2 hours, but the round trip bus was cheaper than a one-way shinkansen ticket, and allowed some money leftover for food.

Next time you’re taking a trip within Japan, why not try the bus?  Here’s a list of the most popular companies, and their sites usually allow online booking where you can choose to with a credit card, pay at a convenience store, or pay when you ride.  Even if you’re going on little Japanese, searching is pretty straightforward as long as you know the kanji of the starting place and destination you want.

Nippon Travel Agency Bus – I’d suggest taking a look here first, since they offer some support in English.
JTB Bus
– JTB is one of the travel company giants in Japan.  Their site also allows you to book by cell phone or smart phone if you use the QR code at the bottom of the page or visit their mobile site.
Hassha O~rainetto – Their site has a 90’s OMG I just learned HTML! vibe to it, but they’re pretty big.  They offer routes for limited sightseeing buses, too.
Willer Express – You can get Ponta points (Lawson convenience store point card) when you make a booking.  I used them once when traveling overnight to Osaka with a friend, and their seats were really comfortable.
Kakuyasu Bus – I haven’t used them yet to book a bus, but a few people have recommended this site to me.

Shinkansen

If you’re just visiting Japan for a short stay, you can apply for the Japan Rail Pass.  I suggest getting one before you come over if you’ll be traveling around Japan a lot in a short time period.  With it, you can ride almost any shinkansen and JR train during the validity of the pass.

Riding the shinkansen itself is pretty straightforward.  Shinkansen ticket machines are bilingual (Japanese/English), but you can also book your tickets online or at the JR Midori no Madoguchi ticket window at most stations.  I always book my tickets in advance because it sucks when a big line at the machine or window makes you miss the next shinkansen out.  If you’re traveling during the holidays, make sure you book your tickets well in advance to guarantee you a train.

When you ride, take note of which cars are for free seating (jiyuū seki) and which are for reserved seating (shitei seki), and line up accordingly.  Reserved seat tickets are a little more expensive, but guarantee you a spot.  I never book them because it’s rare there won’t be any seats left in the free seat cars unless it’s the holiday season.  If you’ve just got money to drop there’s also the Green Car option.  Other than a slightly comfier chair and an empty cabin, because hardly anyone sees the point of  spending their money, there are no other perks.

There’s a great article here about how to find seat arrangements on the train you’ll be riding.  This is especially helpful if you know you’ll be needing wheelchair, bathroom, vanity, or smoking car access.  I know the problem I run into most often is my phone dying (damn short iPhone 5 battery life!), and in my experience most shinkansen cars have outlets at the front row of every car.  Sometimes the outlets are only on one side of the row, though. :/

When riding the shinkansen, many Japanese like to buy a station lunchbox, or ekiben (short for eki bentō).  Most of them cost around 1,000 yen, give or take on size, quality, and ingredients.  Personally I’m not in love with them and getting takeout from Starbucks is about the same price, so I usually go for that instead if I’m splurging.  Otherwise just pack your own lunch or grab some rice balls/a cheaper lunchbox from a convenience store.  There’s sometimes a stewardess on the shinkansen that will sell snacks and there’s vending machines between cars.

Want to travel, but you’re not eligible for a Japan Rail Pass and the shinkansen is a little too expensive?  The Seishun 18 Kippu might be a good alternative.

Flights

Flying domestically within Japan is terribly expensive.  In the 8 years I’ve been here I’ve never once flown domestically.   I don’t recommend it unless you miraculously catch a discount or your company is footing the bill.  However, international travel is another story!  Living in Japan puts you in great proximity to the rest of East and South Asia.  It would be an opportunity wasted not to explore!

My first rule of travel, no matter where I’m going, is to avoid Japanese travel agencies unless you have a friend in the business who can cut you a great deal.  It’s well known that these companies advertise fares they can’t guarantee or that have already sold out in order to bait you in.  Then they give you the, “Sorry those tickets sold out! *sad face* But there are still a limited tickets remaining for *a ridiculous amount of money* more!” spiel and hope that by that point you’re so enamored with the idea of going that you’ll reluctantly agree, say shōganai, and fork over more than you had originally planned on spending.  They also add on false fuel and airport surcharges that either don’t exist or are 2-3 times more than the actual surcharge in order to make a profit.  A lot of Japanese online retailers will do the same, like this well known “budget” flight booking site called Across No. 1 Travel; by the time all the hidden “taxes” and “fees” are added on, its just slightly cheaper or the same price as going through the regular Japanese agent.

So how can you save money?  Well, if you’re traveling to Australia or South Asia, you might want to check into low cost carriers like Jet Star and Air Asia.  Jet Star operates from a number of major airports across Japan, while Air Asia operates from Kansai International in Osaka, Chubu Airport in Nagoya, and Haneda Airport in Tokyo.  These are usually no frills tickets, where meals and checked baggage cost extra.  I’m actually catching an overnight flight to Singapore tonight via Air Asia. 🙂  I caught a good deal for 30,000 yen ($300 USD) round trip including fuel/tax/airport fees, but with the one checked bag 25 kg or under surcharge it came out to 40,000 yen ($400 USD).  This was still much cheaper than it would have cost flying any other airline, so I happily made a booking with them.

If I don’t want to use a low cost carrier or it’s not offered for my destination, I usually search many of the major fare comparison sites like I would in my home country.  Since this post, I’ve made a more detailed post about finding a cheaper flight here.

Accommodation

Accommodation can also be costly in Japan.  Most hotels and business hotels charge per person instead of per room, and will usually run you 10,000 yen ($100 USD) a night per person, give or take, depending on the day and season.  Sometimes you can snag a better deal at 4,500 – 6,500 yen ($45-65 USD) a night per person at chain business hotels like Toyoko Inn.

If you’re traveling in Japan alone or with a few people who aren’t picky, I recommend using a hostel.  You’ll still be paying per person, but you should be able to find a clean room with decent service for about 2,000-3,000 yen ($20-30) a night per person.  If you stay longer than a set period of time, lots of hostels offer an extra discounted rate.  In Tokyo, the cheapest hostels are often located in Asakusa.

Or, if no one’s picky and you want the same amenities as a hotel, why not use a love hotel?  Love hotels are for couples looking for a place to get it on, but the nice ones are well cleaned (probably more than your average business hotel that offers porn on TV, and where couples might still get it on), are spacious, and have extra features like brand name beauty goods and amenities, karaoke, a large bath or jacuzzi, and free movies (not just porn).  Love hotels only charge by the room, so you can fit a small group in and split the room rate.  Recently some younger women like using love hotels as a party pad.  The only bad part is that you can’t book multiple nights in a row, so you’ll need to take your luggage with you or store it in a coin locker each day.

Another cheap option for short term or light traveling is an internet or manga cafe.  With an exception of very few, they offer a night pack anywhere from 6-9 hours at around 1,500 yen ($15 USD).  The bigger ones or chain locations also have shower rooms, karaoke, games, movies, darts, and/or billiards.  Some of these options might cost extra.  Free soft drink and soup bars are a staple.  But like love hotels, you can’t reserve multiple nights in a row, so you’ll need to take your luggage with you or store it in a coin locker each day.

Or, if you’re traveling internationally, why not skip the regular hotel and stay at a private residence or listing?  I used Flipkey to score a beautiful, privately owned villa in Bali with the ocean as our backyard at under $100USD a night for two, even though rates at similar corporate owned villas were $200-$300 USD a night and up.  For my trip to Singapore I used AirBnB.  I’ll be staying at a room in a privately owned downtown condo with free wi-fi and pool usage for around $65 USD a night including tax, where as any hotel offering the same convenience and amenities would run me $100 USD or more.  I have a few friends who have used another site, Vrbo, to book their holiday get aways or wedding festivities at privately owned mansions and properties.  I personally like the fact that booking through a private owner gives money to a real person, and not a corporation.  Also, for a single traveler like me, staying on another couple’s property is really convenient for getting recommendations on what to eat, do, and see from locals, making new friends, as well having a safety net should something happen to me while I travel.

Couchsurfing is another option if you’re on a tight budget or just like to experience new thrills.  All you need to do is open up your own couch to other travelers and couches all across the world will be at your fingertips.  As a woman traveling solo, I admit I’ve been reluctant to try it out, but a lot of my male expat friends have nothing but good things to say about their experiences.

Whew, that was quite the post!  Originally I wanted to make a post about the cherry blossoms, but they aren’t in full bloom yet so I’ll save it for when I come back.  I’m excited about having some fun in the sun in Singapore and I’ll be sure to post about it, too, when I return!  Have fun everyone and enjoy your spring vacations! 🙂

– J

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