I’m currently in the middle (actually, about two thirds through!) of my two month trip round Japan. Today we’re going to talk about how I actually planned this trip. I recently posted about how I plan big trips, and this current trip certainly counts as a big one, although I didn’t plan it in the same way so it gets a post of its own! After I last visited Japan in 2015, I knew I wanted to come back for two specific things. Firstly, a long trip to travel round the country and see more of the various regions; and secondly, to come back for a year and live in one area. With those things in mind, Japan stayed on my “travel destination” list and I continued pinning images, reading articles and generally researching the country as I would any other place I want to visit. Obviously, despite the fact I had already visited! As a seperate thing, I also knew I wanted to live by myself for a few months by myself in another country before getting married.
GETTING TO THE POINT
When I saw return flights for £250 to Tokyo last year, I was ecstatic. My original thought was that Ryan and I could go for a two week holiday over Christmas and get to see Japan in winter. I obviously started messing around with the dates to see if I could get any cheaper. I realised the price was the same to go for four weeks as it was for two! I was like “sign me up!” but we hit a snag knowing that Ryan wouldn’t be able to go anywhere for more than two weeks due to work. After some more faffing with the flight dates I realised it was actually cheaper to come for 5+ weeks and we agreed that I would come alone to Japan. This trip combines both my desired dream two month trip from my last trip, plus, I get my pre-wedding months living away! I wound up paying £180 return flights for this whole trip (nuts). And you have no idea how good it felt to go through my goals notebook, find the entry “return to Japan for 2 month regional trip” in my 2015 handwriting, and DAMN WELL TICK IT OFF 🙌🏽.
Once I had the dates in place, I started gathering info on what I wanted to do. This bit is kind of similar to how I normally plan trips! I made a Google map and the first layer was “Prefectures and Cities” where I basically just bookmarked every city I wanted to visit. I set no limits and just happily plonked in places regardless of where they were, how I might get to them or any other logistical info. I added Tokyo (obviously) as my start and end point, I added a few places I’d seen briefly in 2015, plus major cities we’d not reached on that trip. The last places I bookmarked were Winter-related areas that I had read about: Sapporo, for the snow festival; Jigokudani for the snow monkeys, and so on.
After that, I turned to the Internet! I think I pinned about 300 “Japan guide blogs” and “itinerary plans for Japan” and what-not. Pinterest was actually a bit crackers to use; there’s no quality control AT ALL in terms of information. For a while I was dead set on seeing a floating house shaped island apparently in Japan that had been repinned multiple times. Turns out nope, it doesn’t exist and is actually a photoshopped image that first appeared on Reddit years ago. Thanks Internet!
SO, YOU KNOW WHERE TO GO, BUT WHAT TO DO?
I had a pretty long list of what I wanted to get out of the trip but again, I turned to guide books and the internet for a bit more help. I tend to use specific targeted searches to help me plan trips as I find guide books are often filled with a lot of accomodation, restaurant and shop info – none of which is ever of much use to me. The two books that did help me were the Fromers 1982 Japan guide book (thanks charity shop) which had detailed info on places with zero restaurant/shop info. Secondly, bizarrely, I waded through my manga collection for the author notes at the back and bookmarked everywhere mentioned!
Internet-wise – this is actually the first time I’ve felt overwhelmed by researching using blogs: there were SO BLOODY MANY. I booked the flights in May last year, and by December, I still had not one single day of my trip planned because I was at the “research” point and wading through endless blogs. As we all know, not all blogs are created equal. At least 15 blogs told me to “remember my passport in my hand luggage” and without trying to sound like a smug prat, I am most definitely past that stage now! Luckily there were some gems out there. I discovered two new favourite blogs, Accio Victoria and The Painted Globe thanks to their Japan posts, plus some of my fave bloggers took a trip to Japan whilst I was planning – shout out to Katy, Erica and Charlie for sharing some awesome coverage of their trip! I also bookmarked anything that sounded cool that I stumbled across in my internet research; temples, shops, markets, gardens, forests, vegan places. A key “layer” for me was areas of wildlife where I’d get to see animals (come at me, bunnies). Cut to the start of my trip where I had a bulging Google Maps and still, no actual plans…
PLANNING THE ITINERARY
So basically picture an extremely full Google map. Prior to coming, I sorted a few things, but sadly, accommodation, budget, a location short list, or even a vague route, wasn’t one of them. I did sort rail passes, Studio Ghibli tickets and tattoo appointments, so you know, priorities. The Japan Rail pass is a thing of magnificence if you are planning to get around the country (if you’re staying in one area, i.e. Honshu, Hokkaido, Tokyo etc, you can get a different and cheaper pass). Studio Ghibli tickets are a pain in the arse to get in Japan and WAY more expensive than booking in advance. I ordered mine with the rail pass!
We had also arranged that my little sister Charlotte would come to join me for a week as gift from her parents to us girls (as you know, some devastating news came through for us last year and it’s been fucking crap so all opportunities for shared joy are exquisite). When I left London for Japan, I had the first three nights of accommodation sorted for Tokyo, and then that was literally it. If you’re travelling with people there’s no way you’d be able to do a trip like that with literally nothing sorted, because somebody’s going to get anxious, or need reassuring, or just generally be reluctant to leave things so late in the day. (I can imagine Ryan going “BUT WHAT IF THERE ISN’T ANYWHERE TO STAY WHEN WE GET THERE”). Listen up kids, this is where we get methodical!
First, I basically decided on which “regions” I would go to in Japan using my (now stuffed) Google map. I ended up with six: (Kyushu, SW Honshu, Japanese Alps, Hokkaido, middle Honshu, and greater Tokyo area, for those of you up on your Japan geography!). I then broke down my time into regions and worked out I could have about 5-6 days per area before Charlotte got here, saving the sixth area (greater Tokyo) to do with her as she is not a seasoned traveller. Then, I went through each region and decided which places I’d stay 1 night and which I’d stay 2 based on how many pins I had on my Google map. I booked most of my accommodation 2-3 days in advance and based it on how I was feeling. Feeling fed up of the backpack and unsociable? Book a guesthouse right next to the station. Feeling full of beans for this city and ready to speak English again? Find an old-fashioned hostel in the centre of town and stay in a mixed dorm. And so on. The few times I did book accommodation in advance (normally to try and guarantee a bed whilst a festival was on) I ended up cancelling nearer the time and rerouting.
OTHER STUFF I SORTED IN ADVANCE
Aside from the Google Map Of Optimism and various passes, the only other legit hours I put into my trip in advance was thoroughly reading up on etiquette. The culture is very different here. On my last trip I had *thought* I’d looked up enough, but in hindsight, I was an absolute Brit Abroad. I was caught short by rules around eating and drinking, the toilet-shoe situation and embarrassingly, blowing my nose on Day 3 before our Japanese guide explained I needed to shut the fuck up and take my snotty self into a private area to do that.
This trip I was determined to blend in and not be a dirty foreigner. God knows why, but I find wherever I travel, at some point there will be an obnoxious Brit and/or American just causing a scene. As both a Brit and an American it’s made me keenly aware of NEVER being *that* awkward person. It’s the one kind of scenario I feel really uncomfortable with! I suspect I’m still unknowingly messing up from time to time, but overall, I think I’m doing ok. Certainly nobody I’ve met and chatted to has hauled me up on anything! With Charlotte here this week (who had done zero etiquette research) it’s shown me that actually, I have either learned or picked up a lot as I’ve been able to pass it on to her (no shade!).
I didn’t learn much Japanese in advance. I would strongly advise that you do! Here’s what I did: I had been planning to download a few apps at the airport and learn key phrases as I go – a truly shite idea as both wi-fi and phone memory have been thin on the ground. Thankfully, Ryan gave me a last-minute gift which included a phrasebook and that has been invaluable. It includes grammar notes, pronunciation tips and information on how the language is constructed, so I’ve been referring to that multiple times a day.
So, how’s that all working out?
Without wifi, my planning sessions have been limited to a few snatched minutes before I go to bed, but as it’s low-season, I’ve had no problems getting rooms. So far, so good: I’ve visited everywhere in the first five regions that I had bookmarked (with the exception of Noboribetsu in Hokkaido: ran out of time). I suspect some of you are having nevous shakes at the idea of going somewhere with fuckall sorted, but I think having done so much prior research (and having visited before), I felt in control about the trip even without any concrete plans. I work freelance and being a) alone and b) in complete control of my own time is how I work best in life anyway, regardless of whether it’s a holiday or a job!
I’ve tried to cover all the specifics I came up against in my travel planning. Hopefully this gives you a bit of insight into how I got this trip sorted! Let me know if you’ve planned any 6 week plus trips and how you did it – or if you’re planning a trip to Japan and you’d like some more advice.