Planning a Trip to Japan: Part 3 & 4

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Part 3: Trains?!
Growing up in Southern California, I know little about public transportation. I took the Metrolink into Los Angeles for fun... once. When it was new. The notion of relying on trains and subways to get me around a foreign country tends to, frankly, freak me the hell out, and so I've poured a considerable amount of effort into reading about public transportation in Japan.

Firstly, I have been reassured many times and by many people that it's really not that difficult, that it's super efficient, and that just about everything's in English anyway. So that's good.

Every site I read tells me all about rail passes. There are a ton of options for rail passes: day passes, prepaid cards, and even passes that only tourists can get for unlimited use on trains around the country.

The most useful information I found was through Japan Guide's articles on transportation and taking the train. They list all of the rail passes and such and such. Lonely Planet has a pretty good article too. After doing some reading, if you're still confused, make a post on their forum and you'll get quick and clear answers.

Basically, as I see it, you have four options:
1) Japan Rail Pass - 28,000¥ for 7 days of unlimited train travel around the country; valid for most lines but not all
2) A Region-based JR Pass (just one of the colors) - If you're just going to be in one region then you can get a pass just for that region, which is cheaper than buying one that would take you all over the country.
3) A SUICA card - If you're just going to be in, say, one city, you probably don't need a big fancy rail pass. A SUICA card is a pre-paid card accepted at most train stations, subway stations, and I hear bus stations. And vending machines! (Note: Under "Using Your SUICA Card" you can find a map in .pdf format of all the stations that accept SUICA cards. I printed it and put it in my notebook.)
4) Wing it - You know, if you want. There are day passes and stuff. I suppose this would be fine if you just don't want to fret about it or are really staying in one place.

Taxis are expensive; avoid them.

Another great site to keep handy is You can put in your starting point and destination and it'll give your the route, time, and cost. I used this to help me determine whether or not I would actually get my money's worth out of the different types of passes.

My results: We are going to get SUICA cards when we arrive in Narita. We are staying in Tokyo the full week, except one day, when we'll travel down to Kamakura, which'll cost us about $20. I don't think we'd get our money's worth out of a JR Pass unless we did more traveling, but we're mostly satisfied with what Tokyo has to offer.

Update: We didn't even bother with SUICA cards. I suppose we could have. Just like everyone says, it took us a couple of days to get used to the system but then we had it pretty much down. A lot of people did have SUICA cards, which seemed to make things go quicker for them, but we didn't have a problem just buying tickets as we needed them. Just be sure you have a good map of the lines to see how they connect and where, especially since some station maps are only in kanji. A couple of times the exit gates spit our tickets back out, indicating that we owed more money, but then you just walk to the end where there's the dude at the window, and he tells you what you owe. No big deal.

Part 4: Deciding Where to Stay
The options for where to stay are ridiculous. It can be overwhelming to start, but if you break up your priorities you can narrow it down pretty easily.

Types of accommodations in Japan:
1) Western-style Hotel - These are standard hotels with standard rooms and if you stay in one of these then sad for you! Why would you go all the way to Japan to sleep in a Holiday Inn? This is also not the cheapest option, though, I admit, I had no real interest in looking into Western-style anything.
Links: Welcome Inn Reservation Center, JAPANiCAN

2) Capsule Hotel - Pictured to the left, a capsule hotel is basically sleeping in a little box with a little TV. A unique Japan experience, and an economical choice. Many have a males-only policy, but I found plenty that allow females.
Links: Welcome Inn Reservation Center, JAPANiCAN

3) Ryokan - A traditional Japanese inn with tatami floors and futons and furo baths, oh my! Usually family-owned, there are a ton of these around for lots of different prices.
Links: Japanese Guest House, Welcome Inn Reservation Center, JAPANiCAN

4) Gaijin Houses/Hotels/Dorms - These are the cheap options. A lot of them offer very few amenities (bring your own towel!) and you sleep in bunks with other people. But, hey, I saw beds as low as 1,400 yen for a night and the people are usually friendly. Sounds like a great way to meet other travelers too.
Links: Gaijin House Japan, Hostel World, Welcome Inn Reservation Center, JAPANiCAN

5) Love Hotels - Find a hotel with almost any theme and rent a room by the hour. Best part: you never have to see an employee. You pick a room from a light-up board, pay, and get your key.

Confession! I only listed what I think are the best options. If you want to see a few more, you can read about them here.

 Whichever you choose, be sure to also check Trip Advisor! After I had narrowed our choices down to two places I looked them up on Trip Advisor and one of them had a handful of reviews that said they had bed bugs from 2007 up until a few months ago. Not risking it! Gross.

My results: The most appealing option out of the above, to us, was the ryokan. We wanted something traditionally Japanese and found many options within our price range of $100 per person per night. For decent environment and prices, I recommend staying in the Taitō prefecture, in either Ueno or Asakusa.

Our main resource for finding accommodation  was the Welcome Inn Resource Center, as they seemed to have the best selection. We also booked through them, and I have confirmed that our ryokan has that reservation on file. Through them we got a good price on a room at the Sukeroku No Yado Sadachiyo, which is right near a five-story pagoda. That's the front of it in the picture.

Update: And it was amazing. When I go to Japan again (that's a when, not an if) I will be very torn on whether I want to try staying some place new, or whether I want to stay again at Sadachiyo, for I loved it ever-so much.

Parts 1 & 2: Deciding When to Go and Buying a Plane Ticket
Parts 3 & 4: Trains?! and Deciding Where to Stay
Parts 5 & 6: What to Pack and To Do Between Now and Then
Part 7: Stuff I Wanna Do
Part 8: Links, Links, and Links


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