Jasmine in Japan: Preparations

Why?

What is Jasmine doing in Japan?

It all started in the fall of 2023. A friend who now lives and works in Tokyo sent me a postcard from her vacation. From New Zealand, very pretty, great scenery. On the back she wrote, in a little postscript: “Hope we could catch up in person soon!” (Amber, if you’re reading this – thank you so much for the invitation and accommodation!)

The postcard from New Zealand that started it all
The postcard from New Zealand

Well, why not, I thought. Ever since I had seen the Shōgun miniseries as a child, that country held a special fascination for me. The culture, the food, the language… traveling there has always been a lifelong dream. In 2022 it looked as if it might finally happen, but the GD 2022 conference took place without my employer due to the strict entry restrictions. And I never had the money or time for a purely private trip. However, in March 2024 my 50th birthday was coming up, which I did not want to celebrate here in Germany. I had some savings and the yen was (and still is) relatively weak. And I also wanted to see my friend again after years of only virtual contact.

So why not just do it this time…

Research and more research

So let’s get to work: Jasmine should also get something from the trip to Japan. The travel time was decided quickly because I wanted to (non-)celebrate my birthday over there; I wanted to experience the cherry blossom; but I had to be back in Germany at the beginning of April for a wedding. Given the rather expensive flight and because I wasn’t sure whether the opportunity would arise again soon, I decided not to go for less than three weeks.

In the end, partly because of the flights, the period was March 5th to 26th. 15 hours outbound flight, 18 hours back with Lufthansa resp. All Nippon Airways; Stuttgart-Frankfurt-Haneda and Haneda-Munich-Stuttgart respectively. I decided to spend a few euros more to have a relatively cheap cancellation option compared to the normal economy class. I ended up with just under 1300 euros in the economy plus fare. There were less expensive options, but I really wanted the cancel option, and two pieces of checked baggage were also included in the price.

The itinerary

All the lovely places I had visited

So the dates were set. To which places should I go, though? It was clear from the outset that the trip would start and end in Tokyo, and I wanted to have a few days for sightseeing, shopping, exploring the nightlife, and generally not stressing out. Kansai, i.e. Osaka and Kyoto were also on the list. I was looking forward to staying there for a few days. Maybe also go to Nara or Kobe.

After the weather in Germany started to get really, really nasty, I was thinking that a few extra days in a warm place would be nice. So why not go further south to Kyushu and hang out in an onsen in Beppu, for example? A good plan for the birthday!

What else? Some place in the north? Or the west coast? Cats! I wanted to see cats. The Aoshima cat island didn’t really appeal to me and it seemed to be very complicated to each. Alternatively, there was Tashirojima in the north, with Sendai nearby, which also had a lot to offer. There was also the Zao fox village. Foxes! OMG!

In the end, I also visited Hiroshima on the way from Tokyo to Kyushu and Kanazawa on the west coast.

The Wanderweib website was extremely helpful in all the planning and during the trip and I can really recommend it to prospective (German) travelers to Japan.

Practical considerations

Staying connected…

Sim Card Japan
Sim card from Japan Experience

Of course, dear Jasmine wanted to stay connected to the big wide world on her trip. Because of my rather poor language skills, it was clear both Google Maps and Google Translate would be essential for survival. After my last trip to Asia (China 2015), I had actually expected that Japan would be fully digitalized and mobile internet would be available at a bargain.

Well… that’s not the case. A mobile router was too expensive for me, and my smartphone can’t handle an e-SIM. I ended up getting the SIM card from Japan Experience. 37 EUR for 31 days with 2 GB of data per day (sometimes more, sometimes less) seemed quite reasonable. Shipping was super fast. The card was to be activated upon arrival in Japan. It is a data card only, so if you want to be reachable by phone you still need a normal SIM. My phone has 2 SIM slots and therefore I could have preinstalled the card in Germany – which might have been a better idea than trying to insert a fragile tray back into the phone on board a bumpy flight 😉

Japan Rail Pass?

Traveling in Japan… well, of course, I absolutely wanted to experience the Shinkansen! And with my travel route, it was clear that there would be some longer journeys. This would only make sense by taking the express train (or by plane, which I wanted to avoid at all costs).

Hayabusa Shinkansen

So what to do? The trains aren’t exactly cheap. And I wasn’t keen on picking up the connections one by one and losing a lot of flexibility.

That said… there is the Japan Rail Pass. Roughly comparable to Interrail, you can use the entire JR network for 7, 14, or 21 days. With a few exceptions: you can’t use it for subways and other lines not operated by JR, and you also have to pay extra for the Nozomi express trains. But otherwise, everything is included, including seat reservations, which you need on most Shinkansens and which I would highly recommend.

Is it worth it?

There are also regional train passes, and the JR West All Area Pass would certainly have been an alternative for at least part of my route. Especially since the price for the JR Pass has increased significantly in the last year: the 14-day pass is now 80,000 ¥ (around 490-520 EUR depending on the exchange rate). The JR West Pass is much cheaper but is limited in time and of course to a specific region. In addition, it was almost impossible to book at the time I was looking. Luckily, Wanderweib (have I already recommended the site? Never mind, I’ll do it again) has a calculator you can use to do the calculations and check whether it’s worth getting the pass.

Gotcha!

For me, it turned out to be about the same. So I decided to get the pass and ordered it also from Japan Experience. Including insurance and a cute booklet for all the tickets I was going to collect, it cost 527 EUR. TBH, there is a risk that you will drive more than you initially planned to justify the rather sporty investment. But for me, flexibility was key. For example: I used it to spontaneously drive to Himeji.

After a few days, the voucher arrived. You can exchange in Japan. Needless to say: I guarded like a raw egg.

Rail-Pass-Voucher
Voucher for the JR Pass

Accommodation

So the only thing left to do was find accommodation. I decided to trust Booking.com for this, even though it’s more focused on hotels – I’m not really a hotel person, but fortunately, even cheap hotels in Japan are extremely clean and decent, albeit the rooms are tiny. I also wanted to stay both in a Ryokan and a capsule hotel at least once.

Matsushima Koumura Ryokan
Matsushima Koumura Ryokan

It was important that the accommodations could be canceled at relatively short notice. Since part of my trip would fall into the cherry blossom season, I wanted to bag these bookings early. It was not yet clear whether Amber would be joining me on part of the tour, therefore I also wanted to book everything for two people. In the end, the price difference for single or double rooms was negligible anyway (considering the total cost of the trip).

That wasn’t easy, because I had to plan in a way that I could do something useful in each place, and the trains in Japan tend to depart rather late in the morning. Complicated…

After about two weeks I had pieced something together. Booked everything. Relaxed…

A text message: “Oh, my parents are coming at the same time you’re here and would have to stay with me. Can you plan somehow differently, especially do the round trip a little later?”

Yeeeeees… But I could make it work; my favorite accommodation in Yufuin (which I had chosen specifically because of the resident cat) was still available on other days so I could postpone the entire round trip by 5 days.

Relax (don’t do it)

That done, I could then relax and wait for the flight. Apart from a lot of little things, that is; putting in vacation… buying a suitcase… getting clothes together… Oh… is my passport still valid?… Mia would be moving back in with Keiko, Vincent, and Emi, and I had planned a few days of vacation before and after. So everything was fine.