This is a compilation of my smart travel tips from my trip to Japan in November-December 2017. I believe these travel tips will come in handy as you plan your visit to Japan.
As my itinerary only covered Osaka, Kyoto, Kawaguchiko and Tokyo, these travel tips will only be based on these places. If you would like to contribute on to these tips, drop me a comment or email and I will be happy to get in touch with you.
Don’t buy the JR Pass if you can
To clarify, this tip only applies if you are covering a cities like Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. What I did was to fly in and out of two different cities since the flight fare did not differ much. I flew with Malaysia Airlines which I’ll admit is not the best option since it forces me to transfer in Kuala Lumpur. But with a fare of S$611 that allowed me to fly into Osaka and out from Tokyo, I could not reject. This flight route already saved me over S$100 from having to buy a JR pass or a shinkansen ticket.
Many Singaporeans love to fly in and out of Tokyo while visiting Osaka using the JR pass. This will actually cost more and restrict you to choosing the JR route when travelling. I personally think it’s more stressful for me having to limit my routes. I will only take the JR pass if I was covering further destinations in Japan.
A quick check using the Hyperdia will give you an idea of travel cost and options. Based on my itinerary of Osaka – Kyoto – Kawaguchiko – Tokyo, a JR pass would make no sense. The only time I took the shinkansen was from Kyoto to Mishima which would then transfer to a bus to Kawaguchiko. From Kawaguchiko, my journey to Tokyo was by bus.
Visit Mount Fuji from one of the Fuji Five Lakes
I felt that I had to add this to my list of travel tips because this place can use a bit more ‘publicity’. Don’t let the idea of the journey to get there put you off. When I visited Kawaguchiko (and Yamanakako 8 years ago), I realised there weren’t many foreign travellers. I figured the journey to get there might have seem too complex for most to want to get there.
Firstly, I want to say this: Mount Fuji is beautiful!!! I cannot imagine anyone not seeing the mountain when they visit Japan. You haven’t seen Japan until you’ve seen Mount Fuji. Having said this, Mount Fuji is pretty elusive and often gets covered by fog and clouds. But when you do see it, it is quite a sight.
Kawaguchiko is very laid back; slow-paced. Shops close early and there is no ‘town’. We hired a car from Toyota for our two days there which cost us ¥16,200 inclusive of insurance. The car provides the most convenience for getting around Kawaguchiko and Lake Saiko. Your alternative is the retro bus which is infrequent and quite pricey. You can buy a 2-day unlimited ride Retro bus ticket for ¥1,200 and there is no single trip fare.
Get the Suica / Icoca / Prepaid Card for Transport Convenience
I consider this one of the best travel tips I can offer you for independent travel in Japan. For greater convenience when getting around, get a prepaid card like Icoca or Suica. This saves you the time from figuring out your train fares, fishing out the coins and buying single trip tickets. Using the prepaid transport card offers a lot more convenience simply by tapping in and out.
When the value runs low, you can add value at the subway or even at convenience stores. You can also use the card for purchases at the convenience stores, various shops and even at vending machines. From my understanding, there is no cost savings on transport but I did notice a small ¥5 savings when I travelled in Tokyo. I am not sure about it but I noticed the charge seemed to be slightly lesser than what I had anticipated from my google checks on fares. If you know more about this, add a comment and let me know.
The only setback of using this is a ¥220 handling fee that they will charge when you return the card for a refund. You will get back your ¥500 deposit as well as the balance unused amount in the card. The handling fee is offset from the balance. For me, I used a Suica card which I kept (as a souvenir) from eight years ago while my family bought Icoca cards in Osaka. The Suica card becomes invalid if unused for more than 10 years so mine was thankfully still valid!
Since the Icoco card is issued by JR West, we got our Icoca cards from the JR ticket machines at the train station at the KIX airport in Osaka. There is language option so do select English and the rest of the steps should be fairly simple. The machines accept notes so we had no problem feeding in our ¥10,000 note. If you are coming in from Tokyo, Narita airport should have a similar set up selling the Suica cards from the machines.
Another one from my smart travel tips list is: Buy your Shinkansen tickets in advance using the ticket machines (which had no queue when we were there). The queue at the JR ticket counter was really long, probably because they were getting the JR pass. Many tourists do prefer to buy from the ticket counters but I would recommend that you give the machine a go and try it out. If there is a staff there, you can ask for assistance. The guy we met spoke pretty good English. Nevertheless the English language option at the ticket machines should make this fairly straightforward.
Do NOT Buy the Subway+Bus Pass When in Kyoto
I would have wanted to put this at number 1 on list list of travel tips. But I decided to arrange my travel tips based on a logical flow of planning. One of my gravest mistakes was being tricked into buying the unlimited subway + bus pass.
Five minutes after purchasing it for all five of my family members, I realised many lines that were in my itinerary went on private railways or JR. These were all not covered by the pass which literally only covered 2 lines on the subway. When I confronted the subway conductor for queries of a refund, he convinced me that I could opt for buses to take me to those places not covered by the subway. So I did not do the refund.
Upon returning back to our apartment did I realise if I was going to be using the buses, I should’ve just bought the one-day bus pass at ¥500. Instead I had paid ¥2,000 for the two-day subway & bus pass with the idea of re-working my routes using only buses. This mistake cost me ¥200 (multiplied by five of us) for a refund we eventually did the next day.
We could’ve gotten a free refund if we insisted to do it on the same day we bought the passes. Despite 20 minutes of arguing with the same guy who tricked me into keeping the passes, our attempts were futile. Because he convinced me to use the buses and I was so overwhelmed with it all, we missed the chance to refund for free. The guy was very sneaky. Hence I am sharing this mistake I made to all of you so you DON’T make my same mistake.
So bottom line is this:
DO NOT get the Subway+Bus Pass! Get the One-Day Bus Pass and use your ICOCA or SUICA card for the other railway/subway lines.
In Kyoto, buses are very convenient compared to the subway. Using the ICOCO/SUICA prepaid cards, you are not limited by any passes from any companies and are free to choose the best options available to you.
Cheapest Airport transfer from Osaka KIX to Namba
Airport transfers can seem like an daunting task to research on at first. That is probably because Japan offers many transport options for you. I’ve included this in my travel tips and will zero in on the option I selected.
For Osaka, my accommodation was located in Namba – which is a very central location to be based in. However as my budget was limited, the hotel I picked required some walking from the Namba transportation hub. The Namba transportation hub is also very large.
I found a direct train that took me from KIX airport to Namba without any need for transfer. This was the Nankai train. Here is where it gets a bit confusing. Perhaps it is a marketing tactic. You have two options on the Nankai: you can take the Limited Express Rapi:t; or you can opt for the cheaper Airport Express train.
The Limited Express Rapi:t costs ¥1,130 for the regular seat and ¥1,340 for the super seat. The ride takes you about 38 minutes from KIX to Namba. The Airport Express costs ¥920 without the need for seat reservation and takes about 44 minutes for the journey.
We took the Airport Express train at approximately 8:00am so it was fairly empty. I’ve read that this train does get crowded during the peak hours. There is also no baggage space as this is like a subway train.
Narita Express is NOT your only airport transfer option in Tokyo
I used to think that Narita Express was my only option. It just comes so naturally. So I decided to add this to my travel tips as well. Narita Express is your fastest option to Tokyo but it is also one of the more expensive option, excluding the taxi.
They have options to get the package where it includes a Narita Express ticket and the Suica card. For my itinerary, I only required a one-way to the airport and did not need the Suica card. So this option became less attractive in terms of cost.
I discovered that the cheapest option is actually the airport shuttle bus. Not to be confused with the limousine buses. Priced at only ¥900 versus the Narita Express at three times the price, this fuss-free bus ride will take you to the city in roughly 1 hour 10 min, subject to traffic conditions. This service operated by Keisei charges you ¥1,000 without a reservation. When you purchase the ticket online, it will cost you ¥900 (one-way).
I felt an element of uncertainty if I went without a paid reservation. You will not know how many empty seats are left for the bus you’re hoping to board. I am not sure if they supply more than one bus if the scheduled bus is full and the demand for that scheduled bus is high.
There is another option which seems a little safer to me. The Access Narita at also ¥1,000 does not take reservations so you will buy your ticket when you board the bus. If you want to be guaranteed a seat, it would be best to go early to queue for the bus just in case there is high demand for the bus you wish to take.
Do factor in extra time to get to the airport early just in case you get stuck in traffic. It is also a good idea to factor in extra time to find the bus stops. We stayed near Tokyo station so we had the opportunity to check the bus stops out on our way to and from Tokyo station. Bear in mind that Tokyo station is huge!
Buy your food, snacks from Don Quijote
I had to add this to my list of travel tips just in case you are as uninformed as me! I discovered this only very late during my trip. Recommended by a friend living in Tokyo, I was taken to the mega store in Shibuya. We’re talking about multiple floors of retail ranging from anything and everything. Snacks, Food, Drinks, Cosmetics, Clothes, Accessories, Shoes… the list goes on. Having said that, I am not telling you to do a major spree here.
For me, it is a place to see, buy snacks to eat and take back to your home country. You might find good deals there if you bother to really look. I didn’t spend too much time there. My focus was strictly on getting some food stuff like packet ramen (not instant noodles), japanese biscuits, green tea, etc. You can also find soba noodles, sauces, stock, bonito flakes and the likes to take home.
The prices are significantly lower than most of the places I have been to. You can also get limited edition Japan-only Kit-Kat chocolates to bring home with you. If you can, visit the mega stores for they offer more variety of goods. Be prepared to use your compactable boston bag!
Smart Tip: Pack in a compactable boston bag for your trip to Japan! This gives you extra space that you might need on your return journey.
Last Minute Shopping at Shisui Premium Outlet
This was a last minute addition to our itinerary. I decided to add this to my smart travel tips list to satisfy the deal shopper in you. We were hesitant to go because of the list of brand names for this particular outlet mall. The ones we wanted were not there. But we decided to go because of the desire to be near Narita Airport in advance for fear of traffic delays. Our flight was to depart at 9.30pm at night so that meant we had almost a full day to spend at the mall.
Though Shisui Premium Outlet may not seem to have a great list of brand names, we were pleasantly surprised by some of the store offers. I ended up buying quite a bit including three pairs of shoes. Nike offered very good prices even though they did not have a great tax-free offer. I bought a pair of Nike trainers for ¥3,999 yet I found another pair at ¥2,999 but it didn’t feel as comfortable!
There were offers in Laura Ashley, Coach, Agnes b, Seiko, Wedgewood just to name a few. Many were local brands like Franc Franc, Lowry’s Farm, Studio Clip that could be interesting too. I bought quite a bit of stuff from Studio Clip – a brand I only discovered while I was there. The discounts were very attractive and things were pretty affordable too. I bought two pairs of shoes there for less than S$30 each and a bunch of stuff as gifts for friends.
We took the shuttle bus from opposite Tokyo Station’s Central Gate. It took a while to figure out where exactly so if you have the time, go early to scout out where exactly. The bus stop is at No. 20 Yaesu Exit from the underground shopping area at Tokyo Station. Be warned, Tokyo Station is huge! Because our hotel was near Tokyo, we had the luxury of scouting out the place in advance. You might have better luck looking for it from outside at ground level. The bus stop is located across the road from the station.