For anyone planning a vacation, there is that excitement to read all about where you're traveling to since you know you're about to embark on an amazing journey- whether it's relaxing at the beach sipping a cocktail, backpacking through Europe, or scoping out a new city.
Then there is the international trip that takes planning a notch higher since you're now dealing with not only potential time zone changes, but currency exchange rates, train schedules (especially if you're from a Midwest town where pubic transportation is virtually non-existent), and cultural differences.
... And then there are those international trips that go a step beyond that where the language is completely different. Not only is the language different, but the alphabet is also different. While my Japanese is definitely not as strong as it used to be, I feel confident I can get by fine while we're in Japan. You would think I would remember a whole lot since I spent consecutive summers living in Japan, but reading through websites, guidebooks, blogs, and books re-iterated how much I had forgotten. Granted, it's been over a decade since I've been back to Japan, but it was a real shock to have realized how much I needed to re-acquaint myself with the language, phrases, maps, and pictures.
I want to dedicate this blog post to displaying the most helpful websites I've found on researching Japan. (When I return, I'll post a complete review of the guidebooks.)
There are many (upon many) reservation websites on the internet. The below lists what websites we found most helpful and why.
- Rakuten Travel- We used this site to book the majority of our accommodations. We also felt it had the most discounted pricing amongst all the websites we visited
- Booking- Another good website we used to book some of our accommodations
- Japanican- One of the top 3 websites used
- Trip Advisor- Trip Advisor has a lot of reviews and ratings on accommodations
- Japanese Guest Houses- This site was recommended to us by numerous people to book ryokans (Japanese-style inns). What is great about this site is that you can choose several ryokans you like and get the pricing for your stay. They will email you back with pricing (and whatever else information you are seeking), but won't book the ryokan until you've given them approval. Overall, it is an all-conclusive site for all the major ryokans in Japan where it will research and communicate between you and the ryokan- for free
Note: Tokyo is a vast city, and reasonable hotels don't need to cost you an arm and a leg. If you're a first timer and trying to determine the best area to stay in Tokyo, many reviews recommend staying around Shinjuku or Shibuya area. Both areas have easy access to many train lines, many key attractions (read: touristy) are located around there, and plenty of shopping and dining options exist.
Hyperdia is going to be your best friend!
It will tell you arrival and departure times for all the trains in Japan. I am using this to determine not only the departure/arrival times, but the length of travel time, # of transfers, distance, what train line to use, subway fare... basically, if you need to go anywhere, this is the website to turn to. And there is now a Droid app you can download! I know we will be using this website daily to help plan our vacation.
Update: Hyperdia was definitely our best friend in Japan. We used it constantly to determine how long it'd take from point A to point B, and get an idea of how much the train ride would cost. Luckily, we were always in a home or hotel room that had internet, so browsing Hyperdia was never a non-issue- but during those times when we couldn't get on Hyperdia, we just asked the agents at the train ticket area, and everyone was eager to help and were very friendly.
Google Maps is your next best friend.
We loved being able to type in the city and Google Maps did all the work for us. Since street signs and the street numbering system are confusing in Japan, we made close-up/zoom views of all destinations we planned to go to so we knew exactly how to get to our desired location.
Another good tip I learned is to Google Map your train station, and then go to Street View. This helped me get acquainted with the surroundings right outside the train station.
Update: Since we normally knew what train station to get off at (thanks to Japan-Guide.com), we tended to Google Map where we wanted to go after we got off the train. For instance, if we wanted to go to a specific store or restaurant, we'd enter the "From" (arriving train station) and "To" (store or restaurant address). Then we'd click on the "WALK" icon on Google Maps, and write down turn-by-turn directions. (Note- we made sure all the places we were looking at weren't far from train stations.)
- Honeymoon in Japan- There are a lot of blogs out there about Japan, but none of them were as conclusive and helpful to me as Jacqui's blog. She wrote 1 blog post daily to recap her adventures while she was in Japan on her honeymoon. She talks about places she visited, restaurants she ate at, and hotels where she stayed. Most of the information in this blog are a result of emails
we've been sending back and forthwhere I've asked her countless questions
- Update: Jacqui and her husband Erik are returning to Japan this year and are capturing their vacation on her 2nd Japan travel blog
- Living Out Loud- This blogger did 4 entries on his adventures in Japan, and it has lots of pictures and reviews
- Bon Voyage- This blog had a post that had some beautiful pictures of his 1-day excursion in Hakone (near Mt. Fuji)
I mainly visited 2 forums, and both were on Trip Advisor: Tokyo forum and Japan forum.
You will need to create an account (it's free), but it was a great way to post questions and answer threads with others either traveling to Japan, who'd been to Japan, or even locals or ex-pats who live in Japan. The group of regulars on these boards have been incredibly helpful and informative (as well as patient- I think I posted multiple questions daily.)
Update: The TripAdvisor forums for Japan and Tokyo were so helpful before and during our trip. No question is a dumb question here.
Other than reading blogs and asking questions on travel forums, the Japan-Guide.com website has been the most conclusive. It lists the top attractions by city, and then detailed information about each attraction- interesting facts, how to get there (from various train stations or cities), hours of operation, and admission fees. Granted, the layout isn't all fancy-schmancy and it looks kind of jumbled, but I used this as my one-stop sightseeing/attractions research shop. Once I found this site, I didn't look elsewhere. I didn't need to.
Update: Japan-guide.com is amazing! Although the website isn't fancy schmancy, it has a lot of background information, and I love that it shows you hours of operation, what train line to take & what train station to get off at, the cost of the train fare, and how to get to your desired attraction after you get off the train... and it is totally FREE!
For Miyajima, I found the Miyajima Tourist Association helpful in regards to detailed information of attractions on the island, including the hiking courses, maps, hours of operation of major attractions, admission fees, and events.
Another tip I learned was to go to a travel agent and pick up tour books. While we had no plans on going on any paid tours, we used these tour books to determine what the most popular attractions are and how long to spend at each said attraction. If a travel agency is offering tours, then they're (most likely) going to offer tours based on the most popular attractions in the specific city, right?. This gave us a good guide as to what are the "must see" and approximate time at each attractions in each city. We went to AAA as well as JTB (where we purchased our JR Passes). Many tour companies also offer 1-day tours in Tokyo... this also helped us map out our Tokyo itinerary as well.
Update: When we picked up our JR Passes at our local JTB office, they provided quite a few books on the places we were visiting, and included maps of the cities as well. We ended up using these maps the most on our trip.
- Bento- I found going to Bento was useful in that they listed hours of operation and used Google Maps to show their location. Some even show the store front so you can see what to look for when you're in Japan. This site specializes in restaurants within the larger metropolitan cities, such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka/Kobe
- Another good one is Lonely Planet- If I couldn't find info on bento, then I'd come here (and vice versa)
- For Hiroshima, I found this site to be particularly useful for hours of operation, address, and phone #
If you're looking for a guidebook, I always head to my favorite online shopping destination: Amazon. The layout is clear and visually pleasing, and I love their vast selection, reading reviews of items, and they normally have the best prices online. And, a majority of their items qualify for free super shipper saving. With this in mind, I purchased a few books at Amazon for our travels:
Update: I used this book to plan and read about the attractions to visit, but I didn't use it once while I was in Japan. The book is quite heavy, and we didn't want to carry it with us. Also, there is just so much (free) information on the Web and I did a lot of research online before we left, so this book got tossed to the side. If you don't have a lot of time to do research before your trip, I would definitely recommend this book- it has lots of information, pictures, and good sightseeing attractions all nested inside this one book.
- Price: $18.48
- Reviews: 4.5 stars out of 39 reviews
- Size: 8.6 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches (You can carry this in a larger purse, but it is a bit heavy)
Update: I used this a little, but barely any. I think I would have used this more if I didn't know Japanese, but I knew enough Japanese to get by. If Darin was on this trip solo, I know this book would have been helpful for him.
- Price: $8.95
- Reviews: 4.5 stars out of 14 reviews
- Size: 5.5 x 4 x 0.5 inches (Lightweight and small- may even be able to carry it in your back pocket)
Update: We didn't use this book. At all. While this book has all these maps in Tokyo, it isn't detailed enough where we could look at it and find turn-by-turn instructions to get places. I found it easier to know which train station to get off at just by looking at the train map at the actual train stations. Totally wished I hadn't paid money for it.
- Price: $18.00
- Reviews: 4.5 stars out of 69 reviews
- Size: 8.3 x 5.9 x 0.5 inches (Lightweight, and you can carry it in your purse)
Here are some websites that answers questions about traveling to and being in Japan: