Gee, it's been awhile since I last updated this blog! I'm sorry, I had grand plans for 2015, but some of them got postponed for another year. My crafty trip to LA with my friend got postponed, but we have happily re-scheduled to next year. Can't wait!
Since that trip was supposed to occur in January, I have to say that I have ants in my pants! I am itchy to get off this rock and get away. Oh no, mini inter-island trips are not enough right now.. I need a real vacay... Good thing I have a Japan trip planned for next month! Yippee!
This will be my third trip to Japan. You can read about my other Tokyo Adventures here. Taking mom with us this time as she has never gone to Japan and always wanted to go! Yay! So excited to see if she will like it as much as we do.
Since we have gone twice to Japan on our own (no, we do not go on tours), I thought I'd share some helpful travel tips with you. Just a few things I learned along the way and some that I wish we knew before we went the first time.
1) Start checking airfares early to see how much it will cost to fly to Tokyo. I'm a planner and can't afford to wait till the last minute due to family scheduling, work, etc. (I may change my mind after I retire though). Me? I start checking about a year before we plan to go. Then I wait a bit to see if there's any airfare specials. If you fly during the off season, its way more affordable. For example, we have never traveled to Japan during Cherry Blossom, Summer, or other breaks. We normally travel in Jan/Feb or other off peak times. For the past three trips, we were able to get our airfare only from Oahu to Haneda for ~$1000 each. We have to pay an additional leg to get to Oahu, but overall that's not too bad. I think domestic fares are comparable, so when we look at it that way, it's more worth it to us to go to Japan than the US!
2) After we book our airfare, we start checking for hotels. The first time we went to Japan we were on a budget, so my husband asked around to see if anyone had recommendations on reasonable hotels. We were referred to check out a business hotel Toyoko Inn. They are a chain, so they had many locations to choose from and their rates were much cheaper than regular hotels. I think the first time we went in 2011, our weekly rate was a little over $500. Since we had a good experience there, we keep going back. I guess its just like our home away from home.
Now keep in mind, business hotels are no frills. Its basically just a room to sleep and store your luggage. For us, this is fine because we do not plan on spending all our time at the hotel. This particular hotel included free breakfast that consisted of a mini buffet of miso soup, musubi, some kind of protein like egg or meatball, and salad. There was also toast and coffee too. Not bad for free right? It was good to not have to think about our first meal of the day and gave us a good start for our daily adventures.
The beds are hard. Let's face it, they used to sleep on the floor. Just don't expect the best beds for the price. We were fine with it. You will be happy to find out though that they have the coolest toilets! It's those automatic bidays.. love them. You will want to buy one after you try it. They also have shampoo and soap dispensers and provide other toiletries such as toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.
They also had a hard cable line for internet access in the hotel. The second trip they had the same. They had free wifi in the lobby, but we had a hard time connecting for some reason. More on internet stuff later.
If you plan on staying there, you should ask about their club membership. It was free and they track how many nights you stay. After so many, you get a free night. I think it also gives you special access to their website.
3) Order your yen early. Start looking at yen exchange rates early. The first time we went, the exchange was not so good. I think we got like 85 cents to the dollar. The second trip was a little better, but not great. This time, we got a much better rate, but I think that's cause we were checking on it regularly. You can order your yen through a bank, but not credit unions. I was also told that even though you don't get the yen that day, they give you the rate posted that day. My bank charges a fee based on the amount you purchase, but it wasn't that much.
This year though, we went to exchange our yen in Waikiki. There's a place called Pacific Yen Exchange in Waikiki across from Duty Free. It's just a little kiosk on the street, so be prepared for that. They said to call if you plan on exchanging a large amount. The benefits are that the rates are good and they don't charge you any fees.
Do not, repeat, do not exchange your yen at the airport. We learned the hard way. Yes, we lost out on that exchange. I heard you might be better off exchanging it in Japan. I hear you can use an ATM at the post office??? Not sure, haven't tried this. We pay everything in cash. I hear not many stores take credit cards either. Not sure about traveler's checks either. Sorry!
This video has more info on money exchange:
4) Getting around in Japan: since we didn't go on a tour, we had to figure out how we would get around in Japan. My husband researched this on the internet and felt that we could navigate it through their subway/rail system. This was (and still is) intimidating for me, but he managed to figure it out. There is an app you can download that contains the routes that you can store in your phone for easy access. My husband took a picture of the map the first time we went so he could refer to it on the go.
The first thing you have to do is get a card and load up money. They have a very good system there where most times you can use a card from one company on another company's line. Those cards can be used for your fares, but also to purchase things in the station such as food or other items.
I think the average amount we paid was ~ $100 per person. The good thing is that if you have leftover on your card, you can cash it in before you leave and get your money back.
The great thing about their system is that you don't have to wait very long in between subways/trains. Plus the stops are not that far in between, so you can get to pretty much anywhere and its within walking distance. Don't get me wrong... there's a lot of walking!
The other nice thing for us is that they used English numbers (not kanji) and the signage used English so we could figure out where to go. While on the subway, the announcements are said in both Japanese and English, and so are the scrolling electronic signage above each exit.
There are also taxi's available and some shuttles/limousine bus you can take. We only took one taxi and it was ok, but we usually end up taking the subway.
5) Internet access: In this day and age, we are prisoners to our phones and the internet. The first trip we went on, we only had a laptop and used our phones for music and movies. The laptop stayed in the room, and our phones did not work in another country. So we basically had to communicate old school style... like meet back here at xxxx time, etc. This scared me to death since my friend had told me once that her and her husband got separated on the subway once.. one got off and the other didn't make it off in time. Luckily we didn't get separated on that trip. But what was scary was the earthquake and contacting others back home. Since our phones did not work and we had no idea of how to use their phones, we felt a little out of touch. Thank goodness for facebook and skype. We were at least able to get messages back to our families to let them know that we were ok, and let us hear back from them about the tsunami back home.
So on our second trip to Japan, we decided to turn on the data plan while on our trip. It's only available in 1 month increments, so we had to pay for the month, but it was worth it. This allowed us to use our phones for internet and texting, but not to make calls. This was enough to allow us to communicate in Japan and back home if needed. You can do this by contacting your carrier prior to your trip.
Getting back to our second trip... we did actually get separated at one time. This happened while in Sapporo at the station when my daughter couldn't get through the gate and we had to call the attendant. Meanwhile, my husband was leading the way and didn't realize we were left behind. Luckily we could text each other and meet up eventually. Stressful but I was glad we had gotten the data plan activated. So worth it!
6) Totally forgot to add you should check your passport! Duh. Ok... so if you already have a passport, you should check the date to see if it will still be current or if it will expire by the time you go on your trip. Renewing your passport is much easier than getting it.. just need to take a photo (I got mine at Longs/CVS) and mail it in with your application/old passport.
If you don't have a passport, you should plan to get it done at least 6 months prior to your trip to allow for enough time. All I did was look up the information online and had my photo ready and the required documents. Online there should be a listing of sites where you can get your passport done. I first went to the library. When we had to get one for my daughter, we ended up going to the community college. If we had filled out the application prior to our appointment it would have been much faster for us, but we had to fill it out there so it took a little while to complete. Plus, because she was a minor, both parents had to go. It was easy enough though. I hear going to the Post Office takes much longer, so try to pick a place that is not as busy.
You can look up how to get a passport here.
Well, that is a lot of information for now! I will be back soon with more trip planning tips. See ya soon!