I’ve been wanting to go to Japan for as long as I can remember. It was always described as such an amazing place with a very distinctive culture and being completely different from the rest of the world.
I bought a Lonely Planet guidebook 1,5 years ago and just decided that we’re going and the trip needs to happen before 2020 Olympics. My boyfriend was not so excited about imposed plans, but surprisingly he came around in December 2018 just when I was browsing Skyscanner and having anxiety for not having any travel plans for 2019. We decided to go 10-25th of April as we had a few days off already due to Easter and there was a decent chance to see cherry blossoms in bloom.
The flights weren’t the cheapest at this time of year and we also opted for direct flights Helsinki-Osaka and Tokyo-Helsinki, which of course are more expensive. We spent 1040€ per person on flights. I think at times you can get them for almost half that depending of course where are you flying from. Our full itinerary was Helsinki – Osaka – Hiroshima – Kyoto – Tokyo – Helsinki and we did a day trip to Nara from Tokyo.
What comes to planning the trip, I just booked the hotels and had a general idea of what I wanted to see. I tried to look up good restaurants, but t’s just an impossible task! In Osaka only, there are over 30 000 restaurants and Tripadvisor is absolutely not a reliable source. As there were restaurants at every corner, we decided that we’ll just go to the ones we find interesting. 😀 We also booked tickets in advance for teamLab Planets and Yayoi Kusama Museum. I also tried to get tickets for Ghibli Museum, but they sold out for the entire month in minutes, so unfortunately we couldn’t go there. I would recommend you to book tickets in advance for places you absolutely know you want to visit as often museums are sold out in advance. I also booked a couple of tours, but more on these later.
What comes to transportation, first I did calculations how much trains would cost between the cities we wanted to visit and it seemed that we wouldn’t need the Japan Rail Pass, but when I was cross-checking some schedules just two days before the departure, I realised that I missed an important detail.
I looked for prices and schedules on HyperDia where you get the fare clearly in the middle, but actually where you should look is the total fare in the upper left corner. Suddenly I realised that it would definitely be worth it to order Japan Rail Passes. 😀
I thought well, how hard can it be to order this voucher and get it in your email… Well, it actually turns out that the piece of paper is sent to you as a hard copy and it is not something you can just get in your email within a few minutes. As we were leaving in two days, there was no chance of receiving it while still in Finland, but luckily it was possible to ship it to our hotel in Osaka. We paid 520 USD for two rail passes valid for 7 days and 13 USD for shipping. When you’re paying this kind of money for a piece of paper with shipping to uncertain location, we decided also to purchase the insurance for 23 USD in case something doesn’t go as planned. It seemed better than just losing 500 dollars if it gets lost in the mail or at the hotel. There are several sites that sell Japan Rail Passes and they seemed to have a bit different pricing what comes to insurance and shipping, but the pass itself is always the same price. I bought ours from japanrailpass.com and had no issues. The pass came within 3 days to our hotel in Osaka and was exchanged without any problems. You can also activate your rail pass from a certain date, which doesn’t need to be the date you’re exchanging the voucher for the pass. I accidentally planned our trip that we actually managed all our train trips within the 7-day validity period, which was a lucky coincidence. All in all, we took the following trips and it was worth to purchase the pass:
- Kyoto-Nara-Kyoto day trip
If you just travel once or twice, it is cheaper and more convenient to just pay for individual trips as you’re also not limited by train types.
A useful tip is that if you know the days and times you want to travel, you should just book the tickets and place reservations when you’re exchanging the pass. Seat reservation doesn’t cost extra, but at least you secure a place on the trains. Usually there are plenty of cars for passengers without specific reserved seat, but I liked the peace of mind of having a reserved seat. Also, you can’t take any shinkansen train you like, but are limited just to a couple of types of trains, so if you were planning on taking a certain train and now can’t, you have plenty of time to tweak your plans. Usually it was not a problem to get tickets just before boarding the train, but there can be long lines and once all seats were surprisingly sold out.
Our flight from Helsinki to Osaka went extremely well. Even the captain said that he had flown this route many many times and it has never been this calm with no turbulence whatsoever. We landed in Osaka and went through a relatively confusing immigration process where you first stand in a kind of a line to take your fingerprints and then stand in another, more organised line, to get your passport stamped. There was nothing very complex in this, but it certainly took a long time (I think about 1,5 hours). By the time we got to our baggage carousel, it has already stopped and somebody even took all our bags off it and they were standing next to it.
We finally got out and the goal was to get cash and get travel cards for public transportation. The situation was extremely confusing as there was very little in English and no ATMs in sight. We finally found travel card machines. I was looking for colour green and Suica cards, but in this region they actually sell Icoca cards and they’re blue. Cards work everywhere we visited in Japan, so you don’t need to buy separate cards for every city. So, yay, machine! But no, the machine works just on cash, so I stayed with the suitcases and my boyfriend went to find an ATM, which he luckily finally found. A word of advise – every single 7-Eleven has an ATM and they accept foreign cards. 🙂
Finally we had cash and managed to get Icoca-cards. The card costs ¥500 and we loaded ¥5000 per card. I think in the end we spend maybe ¥13000 on travel cards (105€) during the two weeks we were in Japan, but we traveled a lot by public transportation.
Finally we got to the part where we needed to navigate to the hotel and let me tell you that was confusing as hell. I hear that Osaka public transportation is somewhat confusing even for the locals, but for tourists first time in Japan and tired after 11-hour flight it was even more so. We finally managed to take a train, which took twice the time than what Google Maps was telling us, so there probably was one quick one and the one that stopped at every stop, so our trip to the hotel took two hours instead of a bit over an hour it was supposed to. Also the 20 possible exits from the final station really didn’t help. 😀
Finally we found our hotel Hotel Brighton City Osaka Kitahama, which turned out to be the best hotel we had on our trip. It was super clean and had big rooms by Japanese standards. It was located in a quiet business area a bit further from all the action, but if you don’t mind that, this was a great stay. The first night we just wanted to get something to eat, take a shower, and go to bed. As this was indeed a business area, there wasn’t a huge selection of restaurants and we kind of picked one bar at random, which had some local craft beers and a tapas menu. Wasn’t very Japanese nor anything amazing, but at nine o’clock in the evening, we didn’t really care. At least we got food.