Planning our trip for Japanese Sakura
It all started with a casual remark by Priyanka (my wife), “Japanese Sakura (cherry blossom) must be really beautiful, right!” In a flash, we decided to visit Japan and started our trip planning in Feb 2015 – exactly a year ago and we were off to Japan in last week of March 2015.
Planning our trip took us some time because Japan is not a popular tourist destination amongst Indians. Hence, there was no anecdotal information which we gather from our friends typically before any foreign travel. Plus, Japan is known to be one of the most expensive nations in the world. Hence, we had to make sure we plan our travel and accommodations way in advance.
When to visit to experience Japanese Sakura?
The first thing to tackle was of course getting optimal itinerary for roughly 8-10 days trip. Our primary motive was to catch Sakura but Japan has so much to offer and we did not want to spend all our time in a city. Hence, after doing some online research, we decided to visit popular cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima over a period of 9 days. We picked our travel dates based on the predicted cherry blossom period since it varies yearly across Japan and largely depends on predicted weather forecasts. Otherwise, the best time to visit Japan is either the spring time (late-March to May) or fall (October-November). The landscape is most spectacular during this time and it’s more fun with lot of tourists visiting the region.
Booking Tickets and Japan Rail Pass
Next, we booked our return tickets on Thai Airways to Narita airport which is about 80 kms outside Tokyo but is slightly cheaper than the other airport. The immediate next thing on our mind was to solve for transportation within Japan. Luckily in regards to the long distance bullet train, Japan gives tourist a break on travel, offering the Japan Rail Pass. The Rail Pass can only be purchased from outside of Japan and is sold in 7, 14, and 21 day increments. We pre-ordered 7-day Japanese railway tourist passes which are very economical & convenient. The 7 day pass is about 29,110 YEN (17,000 INR) for ordinary class. But after checking out prices of stand-alone journey tickets, this was totally worth it.
Japanese people have a reputation of being extremely disciplined — we got to experience that first-hand when the visa office required us to produce day-wise itinerary of our trip including our accommodation details and tourist spots we would visit and bona-fide employee letters from our respective employers along with usual visa documents.
Here’s our day-wise itinerary:
Day 1. Narita to hotel, check-in at Shinjuku City Hotel
Day 2. Meiji shrine, Takeshita street, Yoyogi Park and city-walks
Day 3. Train to Kyoto – catch glimpses of Mt Fuji. Check in at Airbnb apartment. Visit Kiyamizu Dera shrine in evening
Day 4. Arashiyama, Moss temple, Fushimi Inari
Day 5. Kinkakuji Temple, Manga museum, Philosopher walk, Maruyama park, Explore streets of Gion
Day 6. Train to Hiroshima, check-in at , visit Peace park monument, Hikari castle, Trip to Miyajima island
Day 7. Train back to Tokyo, Visit Shibuya crossing
Day 8. Shinjuku National garden, Ueno zoo in Tokyo, Sensoji Temple, Asakusa
Day 9. Visit Akihabara Electronic store, manga shopping and catch flight back
We figured out international roaming (and especially data) is expensive and free wifi is not common in Japan. Hence, we pre-ordered 21 Mbps PocketWiFi which we could collect from post-office located at Narita airport. PocketWiFi is a mini portable wifi router and is called mi-fi and was extremely useful throughout our trip. Accommodation was the most expensive part of our Japan trip. Also, my wife being complete vegetarian, we ensured hotel rooms have kitchenettes so that she could cook ready-to-eat noodles in case we did not find vegetarian food. And yes, it was thoughtful of us that we planned for this because finding veg. food in Japan was a difficult task. While we did find veg food options (although limited), at times Maggi noodle packets and ready-to-eat Indian snacks came in handy for Priyanka. While we chose to stay in hotels located in touristy parts of Tokyo in Shinjuku, we found a great Airbnb deal for our stay in Kyoto right in the heart of the city. For Hiroshima, since we were staying just for a day, we chose hotel close to the railway station.
Quick tips for Japan travel
There were a few other suggestions we gathered online came in handy during our visit.
- Having Google translator app helped us while conversing with locals. Practice even rudimentary Japanese—numbers are very useful! The Pimsleur Japanese audio course is good for learning the basics.
- Carrying a good pair of shoes for walking helped during our long walks in all three cities of Japan. Pack slip-on shoes. You’ll be taking your shoes on and off a lot in temples and restaurants.
- We carried sufficient Japanese yen (50K INR or about 30K Yen) along with International debit card which helped us at restaurants and shops which accepted cash-only.
- Pack light. It will be much easier to hop on and off trains if you pack light and hotels have limited storage space for luggage.
- Cherry blossoms predictions are not perfect and can move by 4-5 days in a region. Hence, we were flexible with hotel booking dates – luckily we did not have to change our itinerary.
- Stay longer if you get the urge. It’s one of our biggest regrets of our travels that we didn’t.