Japan 2014: Lessons in Planning, Passes, and Pocket WiFi

When I was younger, I knew Japan only by the anime I watched after school. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who considered Heero Yuy to be quite a big part of childhood.

Tank tops and spandex shorts have never looked so good.

Since then, I eagerly acquainted myself with all things Japanese through their films, their food, and the stories of people who were fortunate enough to have traveled to the Land of the Rising Sun. I came to love Japanese culture, which has an aesthetic, value system, and a way of life I find very enchanting and exemplary. To me, the Japanese are a truly unique people unlike any other culture I’ve read about. Filipinos are a melting pot of Asian and European influences, fueling spirited debates about what it really means to be Filipino. The Japanese are Japanese, unquestionably. Before my family went to Europe, I was excited. When I got a whiff of budget plane fare to Japan, I was manic. I immediately sent a Facebook message to my parents and brothers telling them “I have to eat here! I have to go there! I can’t leave Japan without experiencing these!” I remember feeling an acute mix of thrill and stress after I put away my credit card away and emailed the itinerary receipt to my parents. That must be how people feel when their dreams really do come true. It was finally going to happen. We were definitely going to Japan.

I was adamant on fixing our itinerary myself, confident we could go around on our own in a country that had a completely indistinguishable language and writing system from English, but my mother wasn’t too keen on that idea. We’ve always availed of tours, which make travel incredibly convenient with air-conditioned coaches and English-trained guides, but I’m always left wanting by the end of our trips. Pre-arranged tours are meant to be efficient and homogeneous. The itinerary and schedule are inflexible and must be followed at all costs. Many a times I wanted to spend an extra hour here or there, but it wasn’t possible unless I wanted to catch up with the bus somewhere somehow. For Japan, I found this way of travel inadequate. I had seven days to explore Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. I wanted to experience everything.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

I was put in charge of train transfers and post-tour trips. I knew Japan’s trains were world-famous for their punctuality, but I didn’t know they were timed by the microsecond!

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By that standard, one of our tour guides said a 3-minute delay today would end up as news in the papers the next morning with a public apology from the operating company. But I wrote this section primarily to profess my love to Hyperdia, for making planning so smooth. When you look at the Tokyo subway map, your eyes might pop out at first. It’s a beast of a network. I couldn’t wrap my third world mind around the thing at first, but it isn’t as intimidating as it seems. You can easily build your itinerary with Google Maps because the train schedules they list are updated in real time, but Hyperdia is a better source to get a more detailed idea of which trains, buses, and number of transfers you need to get to where you want to go. Hyperdia gives you the estimated time of travel, available train types, arrival tracks, departure tracks, and up to five route options. You want to know the secret to getting the hang of Japan’s train systems? Keep calm and Hyperdia.

Another way to go around the country easier is to get a Japan Rail Pass. The JR Pass is a service exclusive to tourists if they’re thinking of long distance travel within Japan. Tourists can only get it outside Japan through travel agencies and online sellers. With a JR Pass, you can ride select shinkansen (bullet train) and all JR-operated trains, buses, and ferries as much as you want without shelling out cash; just flash the pass at the ticket booth attendant and you’re good to go. It eliminates the possibility of you fumbling at the ticket machine while a long line of people form behind you or buying the wrong ticket. The price ranges from Php12,000 to Php14,000 (US $250 to 350) depending on the agency you get it from and exchange rates.

Not all trips to Japan require a JR Pass, though. It’s worth the expense if long distance travel is involved, say Tokyo to Kyoto then Kyoto to Hiroshima and back to Tokyo again. If your itinerary only covers Tokyo or Kyoto, it’s better to get a Suica or Pasmo card, which you can top off as needed like Hong Kong’s Octopus cards, or just buy tickets from the ticket machines. If you’re really not sure whether you should get a JR Pass or not, compare the price of getting a JR Pass to the estimated total sum of all your travel expenses by JR-operated and non-JR operated trains, buses, and ferries. Hyperdia also shows ticket prices.

When you’ve settled on buying a JR Pass, call an accredited agency at least one week before your departure date and reserve JR Passes for you and/or your group. Ah, but the thing is…you won’t actually get a JR Pass from the agency. They’ll give you an exchange order, which you’ll use to get the real JR Pass from a JR Service Center once you land in Japan. The process takes care of itself. But a word of caution: Some agencies take up to 3 days to process the exchange orders. During peak seasons, reserve exchange orders at least a week before your departure date, or at the very latest four business days, especially if you’re travelling with a big group. We got ours from Attic Tours.

Speaking of tours…

My family and I knew going to Japan would be expensive. We didn’t expect it to be as expensive than our three-week-long Western Europe trip, though. My mother poked around for tour packages and found that a three-city tour from one company (inclusive of hotels and transfers) could set our family of five adults back a gut-wrenching US $15,000. My jaw fell on the floor, wait, sorry. Let me just…okay, there we go. That’s almost Php700,000, or my entire tuition for four years of private college.

The exorbitant cost of that tour package led my mother to Viator, a company that connects travelers to local agencies to provide tours with local guides. We signed up for three tours: Kyoto Full-Day Sightseeing Tour including Nijo Castle and Kiyomizu Temple (US $124/person), Private Tour: Osaka City Sightseeing (US $185/person), and Panoramic Tokyo Day Tour – Meiji Shrine, Asakusa Temple, and Tokyo Bay Cruise (US $100/person). With these tours, we only spent US $2,045. I’ll write about these tours soon.

As good a financial decision it was to book tours via Viator, the company was more of a middle man than a one-stop-shop tour agency. Once we got to Japan and had questions about our tours, Viator informed us that we would have to contact the local tour agencies they arranged our tours with, not them. That was a bit of a hassle, but it all turned out well since we were already staying at the hotels where the tours started in the mornings.

Four for you, New Miyako

My mother is all about stress-free travel. The less time and effort one has to make to see as many places as one can is her motto. Each of our tours had designated pick-up spots early in the morning. She didn’t want to risk being late or getting left behind so she made reservations at the hotels closest to the morning meeting points. Fortunately and unfortunately (for my parents’ wallets, at least), the nearest options were all four-star hotels. In Kyoto, we stayed overnight at New Miyako Hotel, which is literally a stone’s throw away from Kyoto Station. In Osaka, we booked a room for one night at Hotel Granvia, a hotel right inside the station. Our third hotel was Grand Pacific Le Daiba located on Odaiba, the man-made island in Tokyo Bay, where we stayed for two nights. I only saw the bill for New Miyako, which was around JPY 95,000. So let’s assume we paid JPY 100,000 for every night at each hotel. Our hotel expense would be around JPY 400,000 (US $4,000 or Php180,000).

A little bit about each hotel:

  • New Miyako Hotel was great since it was right in front of Kyoto Station. I shared a spacious room with my two brothers. There were sockets beside each bed. Nice. But the thing that made New Miyako my favorite in the bunch is this: We wanted to go to Kodaiji Temple because I read that it had a spring nighttime illumination event happening, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to get there. We approached one of the night staff for directions, expecting him to mention landmarks here and there and send us on our way, but he went above and beyond, truly. He drew us a color-coded, three-part map from the hotel to the temple entrance. He drew directional arrows in red using his multi-colored ink pen and spent a lot of time trying to draw straight train tracks for his drawing of Kyoto Station. Excellent service for such a simple request. New Miyako in Kyoto, definitely worth every centavo.
  • Hotel Granvia, on the other hand, had smaller rooms, probably because it was located inside the station. When we arrived there, the place was packed with tourists, tour guides, and businessmen checking in and out. The staff was up to their eyeballs in work. We brought our bags up ourselves. Our rooms were on the same floor as the function rooms so the place was understandably busy. Location-wise, it was the most convenient place to stay, but out of the three hotels, I liked Hotel Granvia the least.
  • In Tokyo, we ended up at Grand Pacific Le Daiba because Tokyo Disney Sea was originally on our itinerary. GPLD offers free shuttles to the Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea. Somewhere during polishing the itinerary, we decided to explore the parts of Tokyo that weren’t included in the Tokyo Day Tour instead, but we had already booked rooms at GPLD. Disney Sea: out. Ameyoko Shopping Street, Takeshita Street in Harajuku, and Shibuya: in. GPLD is a beautiful, family-friendly hotel, though. It was the first time we had a triple room instead of the usual double room plus rollaway bed set-up. And the bathroom had its own chandelier and was deliciously spacious because the tub was separated from the shower. There was a lot of room in there to dance! (…you don’t do that when you’re taking a bath? No? Really?) Recipient of the Best in Triple Room Award during the Gemzon Japan Trip 2014.

Commandment No. 13: Thou shalt not mooch off thy neighbor’s WiFi

I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but as technologically advanced as Japan is, Japan-wide WiFi is a myth. You’ll probably have better luck in South Korea. Sure, there are free WiFi spots here and there (maybe), but if you’re on the move, physically asking for directions is more efficient than checking Google Maps and hoping the sliver of free WiFi you’re connected to delivers. To solve this, I looked into renting a pocket WiFi device from Japan Wireless three days before our flight out of the Philippines. I was nervous about going around since it was my job to act as the guide for my family when we weren’t on the tour. I just wanted to have that security blanket.

I reserved an LTE mobile WiFi router that could connect up to 10 devices for 8 days by filling out a form on the Japan Wireless website and paid around US $70 via PayPal. I had my unit shipped to the airport where I picked it up from the post office booth. It included a free power bank for the device and a return envelope to drop off the device at any post box when I’m done with it. Minimal hassle, no talking to sales people, just the way I like it.

It was pretty handy to have, but navigating Japan isn’t as hard as some people fear it to be. It’s very easy to ask for directions and chance upon people who will lead you to the places you want to go to, even if it seems bothersome for them. If your hotel has free WiFi, that might be enough to fix and double-check the next day’s itinerary. If not, then the pocket WiFi device would be very useful. In our case, we  just used it to post photos on Facebook and Instagram in real time.

To DIY, or not to DIY, that is the question

Here’s a copy of the itinerary I made and an estimated breakdown of our pre-Japan expenses below:

  • Airfare plus taxes and airport fees: $1,290
  • JR Pass: $290
  • Day tours: $2,045
  • Hotels: $4,000
  • Estimated cost for other modes of transport not covered by the JR Pass: $150 (non-JR-operated trains and buses and the Yurikamome monorail; no taxis)
  • Airport Limousine bus from GPLD (because my parents didn’t want to schlep all our luggage and carry-ons on trains): $160
  • Pocket WiFi unit: $70

Total: US $8,005. Still cheaper than getting that mega US $15,000 tour package.

While DIY travel is almost always cheaper than getting tours, it’s definitely more tiring, and I won’t recommend it to everyone. On some nights, rolling around on the carpeted floor was easier to get to the bathroom because my poor, exhausted feet were black and blue from all the walking. That’s what you get when you don’t pay the price for convenience. However, the best trade-off was taking in many of Japan’s wonders at our leisure and having experiences we wouldn’t have had if we kept to a pre-arranged itinerary that twenty other people have. Plus, I learned how to move around Japan on my own, which will prove useful if I’m able to travel to that beautiful country in the future, and I will definitely try. Move over, Heero Yuy.

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One thought on “Japan 2014: Lessons in Planning, Passes, and Pocket WiFi

  1. Carol E. Errazo May 20, 2014 / 5:05 PM

    Hats off to you, Kay! I envy your mom but at the same time a proud godparent. You are so talented! You could do ane cxellent job as a travel magazine writer like TitaTish Leizen or do a travelogue like Samantha and the other Taiwanese lady in The Travel and Living Channel.

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