Japan Trip: Resources for Planning

I’m indebted to numerous blogs and webpages online for planning my trip to Japan. But after a while, I came to realize that most blog posts tend to be about things in Japan – as in describing or reviewing an activity, as opposed to how one found out about that thing, or planned how to get there. Now of course, there are both online and book travel guides that pretty much help you figure out what to do. And I did consult some of those. But for the most part, online resources have by far been the most helpful in planning practically every detail of my trip to Japan. So here in this blog post, I thought I’d share the online resources that I think are invaluable to planning any trip to Japan.

Disclaimer: My upcoming trip to Japan is my 3rd, so I may miss some really basic resources that I might have needed to mention first. I apologize in advance for that. Also, I should note that I am.. how should I say this.. mid-career. And also single. So I guess you can say I have more cash to burn than most travellers. So I’m not exactly as concerned about keeping to a budget as others. Not that I’m bragging about that – in fact, being in this life situation has its drawbacks too, like thinking a 6-day trip to Japan is a long trip. Back when I had the time to travel, I had no money to do it. Now that I do have money, I don’t have the time. Meh, c’est la vie. Also, I should mention that my trip to Japan is technically a layover to my “real” vacation in the Philippines, where I do the main vacation stuff of spending time with family, etc. Not sure how much these things exactly will affect my judgement on resources and such, but I thought I’d put it out there in case it helps to explain my thoughts.

1) www.japan-guide.com

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Man am I so glad I came accross Japan Guide three years ago when I planned my first trip. Even now, I continue to scour its pages for the best information about what to do in Japan, and how to do it. I really appreciate its simple approach to explaining what something is, and then how to get there and around there. Its just an incredible guide. More importantly: what info you can’t find in the site’s main pages, you will likely find in its forum. Do a quick search for what you need, or (if you can’t find it) just go ahead and ask your question with a new thread. How I use it: This is basically where I get ideas of what to do in Japan. I’m not exactly a Toky0 Sky Tree kind of guy… I’ve been up the Toronto CN Tower plenty of times. But I do want to find that Onsen that is popular with the natives. As far as I know, I have not been anywhere in Japan that I did not first spend time researching in Japan-Guide.com.

2) JPRail.com

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-1-37-28-pmIf you don’t know what the Japan Rail Passes are yet, go to the Japan-Guide.com article of rail passes to get an overview, and then come back to JPRail to get the nitty gritty details of how to make the best use of your rail pass.

Frankly, in my opinion, if you’re spending even as little as  3 days in Japan, you absolutely need to get a Rail Pass. Now I know that might be my “I’ve got money to burn” bias sneaking in. But seriously, one of Japan’s main features is their Shinkansen (bullet trains). For example, with the JP East Tokyo Wide Pass (Y10,000 … about $96 USD as of this post’s writing), which only good for 3 consecutive days, if you take just 1 round-trip Shinkansen ride (say, to Gala-Yuzawa, which is the closest ski hill to Tokyo), you’ve already used more than the Rail Pass is worth (Round trip to Gala Yuzawa is about Y12,000).

It’s especially important for people who want to visit west/south Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, etc). I’ve personally only been around Kanto (and in my next trip I plan to go to Tohoku,  which is in the north), so I’ve never experienced it myself. But based on the deal I got just using it around Kanto, I highly recommend it.

How I’m using the website. Planning this upcoming trip, there were 3 really really important articles in this website that I was so grateful for. 1) 2016 Busiest period to travel. Since I’m going to be in Japan over New Years, I needed to figure out if the holiday was going to affect my own travelling around Japan. And in fact it does. And I’m so glad I looked up the info on that site first before I got some real shock of not being able to book certain train tickets because of how busy it was. 2) Rapid Train Resort Shirakami. This is an example of the kind of “info/review” post that really piqued my interest and affected my plan. I don’t even know how I stumbled onto this page, but since I did, I decided I wanted to take that train. It is a mountain/coastal train that travels along Japan’s north-western coast. 3) Schedule of 2016-17 Winter Seasonal Trains. This post was actually just published today, and I was waiting for it.. It contains the schedule for the train I mentioned in #2.

3) Hyperdia

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I don’t even know what to say about this site. If I had never come across it, I would have had so much difficult planning my trips to Japan. Of course it works really well because Japanese trains are famously punctual. But while its main function is to provide timetables, that’s not even the only way you can use it. You can also use it to plan your train trips from one area in Tokyo to another. It’s seriously invaluable to anyone who plans to take any kind of train in Japan – which chances are, most will be doing that. If my 1 and  2 spots of this list were like helping me to narrow down my plans for Japan, Hyperdia is definitely the narrowest level of them all, where I can plan to the minute what train I need to take.

4) Expedia.ca

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And by Expedia.ca, I really mean any of the only travel sites that let you book tickets and hotel rooms. All of them are good, and in fact, I’m pretty sure are interconnected somehow or are owned by the same people. Others are Travelocity, Agoda, Booking.com etc. I simply choose Expedia because I booked my vegas trip with them and I got a whole bunch of points. So now I’m going to choose to be loyal and continue booking through them.

How I use it: First of all, as helpful as these sites are, you have to understand how they function. Namely that they keep track of info about you through cookies. So if you’re searching stuff one day, and maybe a week later try to search it again, chances are, they’ve hiked prices on you just on the basis of you having searched for it before. So I always use Incognito Mode (or Private mode, or whatever other browsers call it… I use Chrome), which doesn’t let the website leave cookies, and let me literally wait until I book with the price I want before I actually log in.

Anyway, I use this to find hotels, of course. I’ll talk about flights later. But these sites I feel are especially helpful for hotels because of 1) verified reviews, and 2) maps. I can’t even express how important it is to be able to look at maps. Not only because it will tell you where your hotel is, but also you can be sure to choose hotels that are near major stations. Save yourself the headache! The reviews are always important, too, of course for obvious reasons.

5) Google Flights

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Google flights is a fairly new took that Google came out with. At least I didn’t have it the last time I planned my trip to Tokyo. But it’s so helpful because it compares all sources of plane tickets and finds you the lowest fare! Yes, it compares Expedia, Travelocity, to the airlines websites, and even to what a travel agent might charge you. So this was super helpful in having just one place to compare prices and not have to visit multiple sites. Usually I wait until Travelocity or Expedia has picked up on a seat-sale with an airlines (I also liked to book flights and hotels together with the same site, but it’s not so important anymore). But with this site, I was able to see what even a travel agent might charge. In the end I found the airlines had the best deal and I took that.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. Like once, it showed me that Travelocity had the flight for like $1600, but then I actually went to travelocity and it was $1800 or something like that. But that just meant I kept looking and eventually I found the price I wanted to pay for the flight I wanted to take.

Alrighty, well that’s it for now. I’ve written way more than I was planning already. And I think 5 is a good number to start with, even though there are more resources out there that I want to highlight. I might do a 2nd instalment, but my next post will likely be about my flight and my reasoning behind choosing the routes that I did (beyond pricing) and what I am doing right now to make my flights as comfortable as possible.

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