Preparing for my Japan Trip

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Osaka Castle

So I’m finally going on a trip to Japan! In my years of travel, I’ve never really given much thought about travelling to Japan, not until recently. I guess the Ramen and Katsu craze and the resurgence of Japanese cuisine in the Philippines also helped to convince me. I’ve passed through the country quite a number of times though on previous trips to the US on layovers in either Tokyo Narita (NRT) or Osaka Kansai (KIX). On the way back from one of my summer vacations in the US when I was in high school, I was able to spend a night at Hotel Nikko Narita simply because Japan Airlines didn’t have a same-day connecting flight to Manila from LAX. I can’t really consider that as a visit though as I literally just spent a night in Narita.

Why such disinterest you may ask? I don’t know, perhaps it’s simply the fear of the unfamiliar. I still vividly remember my overnight in Japan coming back from my summer vacation in the US. I was only barely 14 then and it was also the first time for me to travel overseas by myself. After being given a shore pass at Narita immigration and upon entering the arrival hall of Narita Airport, I felt so lost because it was so huge at that time and just about everything was in Japanese. I honestly didn’t know what to do nor where to go. Luckily I found the information desk and upon approaching the desk, I immediately saw my name written on a card posted on the wall behind the counters. It turned out that it was my hotel voucher. Whew!

So what finally made me decide to embark on a trip to Japan this time? Well to be honest, I just randomly booked a ticket to Osaka thanks to fare sale at Cebu Pacific (5J) sometime in July without knowing what to expect. Be sure to subscribe to Cebu Pacific’s email alerts so you get informed once a sale is offered. The ticket cost me P 7,231.00 (with Travelsure, excluding bags, meals, Philippine Travel Tax and Terminal Fee) or roughly US$ 164.00 return for a 5-day stay in Japan. I guess I also needed a break and decided on a place that apart from the usual.

APPLYING FOR A JAPAN VISA

Visa JAPAN

Being a Philippine passport holder, Filipinos belong to a less fortunate group of citizens who need a visa in order to travel to Japan. In a bid to boost tourism, the Japanese government announced in early 2014 that visa requirements for Filipinos would be substantially relaxed. But still a visa is needed unlike other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, among others, where the visa requirement to visit Japan has been lifted.

So how did I go about applying my visa? First was to rely on the wisdom of Mr. Google. Yup, I just typed “Japan visa for Filipinos” and a whole lot of resources magically appeared before me. There were forums, blogs, etc., too many to mention but I initially just referred to information at the Japanese Embassy website.

One major drawback for Filipinos travelling overseas for a holiday is the visa application process. Not only is it tedious with lots of documents to prepare but there’s always this fear and apprehension of being denied a visa. I was quite fortunate that my first visa to the US was applied for by my dad since I was still a minor then. I’ve so far renewed my US visa four times and have become quite familiar with the process. Visa application varies depending on where you’re going as what I’ve experience when I previously applied for Schengen (Europe) and Turkish visas.

Well it turned out that applying for a Japanese Visa wasn’t as difficult as I thought after all. All that is needed is to download the application form, have your photo taken, make sure you prepare all the required documents and submit to any of the accredited agencies. Since I stay in Makati, I checked out the websites of agencies based at Dusit Hotel. I ended up filing my application with Universal Holidays. I applied in July and since July happens to be Philippine-Japan Friendship month, they only charged P 720.00 instead of the usual P 1,200.00 for the Visa Application Fee. Take note that single entry visas usually have a validity of only three (3) months from the time it was granted so time your application accordingly. I was very pleased with my choice as Universal Holidays was very professional in dealing with visa applications. I filed my application on a Friday afternoon and got a text the following Tuesday that my Passport and Visa were ready for pick-up. It’s as simple as that. About the only difficult part was gathering all the requirements but will be a breeze once you’ve submitted it. No waiting in line and no interviews required. A matter that was a bit disappointing was that I was only given a 15-day singe entry Visa. This means I would have to go through the entire process again if ever I plan another visit sometime in the future.

PLANNING MY ITINERARY

As previously mentioned, I had no idea of what to expect in Osaka when I initially booked my ticket to Osaka. My default resource when planning for a trip would always be Tripadvisor. Depending on where I plan to travel to, I would always go to the forum section of the specific place and post queries. Members are quick to reply and provide you with valuable and relevant information. It was only then that I got to know more about the Osaka and its environs that I began to be more and more excited for my trip. It was only then that I realized that the city of Kyoto lies within the same region as Osaka and is actually considered as Japan’s cultural capital. Osaka-Kansai (KIX) Airport is the main airport that serves Kyoto. I was initially planning on basing myself in Osaka and making Kyoto as an option for a day trip. But as it turned out, Kyoto appears to have much more to offer as far as history and culture is concerned. Osaka is a modern city and does have its share of interesting sites to offer foremost of which are the Osaka Aquarium, Universal Studios Japan, Umeda and Dotonbori districts, Osaka Castle, among other. But I’ve already had enough of modern cities (for now) and have had my share of theme parks since I was a kid. Shopping is likewise not part of the plan. Well ok, just maybe a little haha. Learning more and experiencing Japanese culture and cuisine is what interests me more for this trip so after much deliberation, I’ve finally decided to instead use Kyoto as my base and just do day trips to Osaka and Nara. Besides, the three cities are merely 30-40 minutes apart by train.

This is how my intended itinerary generally looks like:

  • Day 1 – Arrive Osaka-Kasai Airport (KIX) via 5J828 arriving at 1955. Transfer to Kyoto.
  • Day 2 – Tour Kyoto
  • Day 3 – Tour Kyoto
  • Day 4 – Tour Nara and Osaka
  • Day 5 – Tour Kyoto. Depart for Manila via 5J 827 leaving KIX at 2040.

This is of course subject to change. I more or less have worked on a daily itinerary but I’ll leave the details for future posts. Apart from Tripadvisor, the following websites have likewise been a rich source of information:

ACCOMMODATIONS

Another part of my planning for the trip is finding a suitable accommodation based on my own preference. Do take note that apart from Hotels, B&B’s, Inns and Hostels, there’s also what’s called a Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn) and Capsule hotels in Japan. Again, I went to Tripadvisor and looked at various accommodation options for both Osaka and Kyoto. Accommodations listed in Tripadvisor are categorized according to type, budget or location and are ranked accordingly based on guest’s feedback. Provide your inclusive dates and Tripadvisor will come up with a list of booking sites with their corresponding rates for a particular hotel. This saves you a lot of time compared to checking hotel booking sites individually.

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Also compare rates if booked directly with the hotel. Since this is Japan and a country that is somehow considered one of the most expensive countries to visit, I set my budget a little bit higher than my usual. Ryokans would’ve been nice but they’re generally expensive and charge per person. Capsule hotels looked interesting as well but for a little bit more, you can have more privacy and your own toilet 🙂 I also noticed that accommodations in Kyoto are generally more expensive than Osaka.

Location is likewise a major consideration. Once I’ve more or less determined how my daily itinerary looks like, I then search for a suitable location to stay. That would either be near points of interest (sightseeing/shopping) or main transport hubs. For this trip, I opted for a business hotel just opposite the Kyoto Station. Timing must also be considered. Some hotels only accept bookings 3 months in advance while some can accept bookings as far back as 6 months. Luckily I was able to find a small double room at Hotel Hokke Club Kyoto located just opposite Kyoto Station for around US$ 88.00 a night without breakfast. Expect rooms to be smaller, even cramped, compared to what you may be used to in other countries. The hotel would allow me easy access to trains, buses and subway station.

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I booked the hotel through Agoda soon after I booked my plane ticket. Since my trip was nearing the Fall peak season, a lot of hotels are already booked out and rates have considerably increased. Another tip when booking with hotel booking sites, always check the booking conditions and go for hotels that will allow you to book now and pay later with free cancellations. This will give you more flexibility just in case you have to change plans later on or find a more suitable place. Also check if the hotel booking site has a local number or office that you can call. It’s best if you can re-confirm your booking prior to leaving which is what I did. I likewise emailed the hotel to verify if they’ve received my booking and to inform them as well of my arrival details. I do this to better avoid any inconvenience once I arrive.

BUDGET

Another foremost question in my mind while planning for this trip is what would be is how much money to spend, how to spend it and where to get my spending money. Of course you’ll likewise have to determine first what you plan to do. In my case, my main activities would be sightseeing, go on a culinary adventure, some nightlife maybe and a little shopping. My airfare and hotel have been pre-paid. Referring to the Japan Guide, entrance fees and transport options are indicated. This allowed me to compute how much I would spend for sightseeing and transportation. For transport options, check for various options available for discounted passes. In my case, I’ve decided on getting the discounted Haruka+ICOCA card for transport to/from the airport.

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Again, refer to Japan Guide for details. I’ve likewise set aside a budget for meals plus I left some for entertainment and shopping. I’ll do a budget breakdown after the trip.

Now what’s the usual payment method in Japan? It’s quite unexpected for such an advanced society but apparently Japan is a Cash Society. Small shops and restaurants almost always only accept cash. Yes they do honor credit cards but I’ve read cases involving difficulty in using foreign issued Credit/Debit Cards. Using the ATM is another option but just like Credit Cards, foreign issued cards may only be accepted in 7-11’s or the Post Office. So I guess my best bet is to bring cash. So do I bring US$ and change it to ¥ in Japan or do I purchase my ¥ in the Philippines prior to leaving? I checked the exchange rate available in Kansai Airport just to get an idea and it seems like I would get a better rate if I purchase my ¥ using Pesos here compared to withdrawing from my US$ account and exchanging it in Japan. I usually purchase foreign currency for travel at Sanry’s Greenbelt 1, Makati. Take note that there are 2 locations in Greenbelt 1. The outlet near Watson’s is the one that sells foreign currency. Lastly, I might as well take my credit cards and some US$ for contingencies. In case you do bring credit cards and intend to use it, don’t forget to inform your bank of your intent to travel just to ensure that they won’t block your transaction overseas.

I guess I’m all set. My trip begins in 3 days so let’s see how it goes.

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