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Trip Report 5 weeks in Japan - Autumn 2011 Trip Report

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From Oct. 20 to Nov. 21 2011 we took a trip to Japan. We have posted the following for all who are interested:

a. Photos (the “short” version, grouped by categories) at
b. Photos, (the “longer” version, grouped by date and place) at
c. Day-by-by trip notes, heavy on description of the sights we saw and observations and experiences :
d. A hotel/dining report at:

All our reports are google-based. If you encounter access problems, contact me at [email protected] and I’d be happy to send via email items you request.

We loved our trip.

You would also love our kind of trip IF you:
--have confidence as a do-it-yourself traveler and enjoy the planning involved
aren’t too distressed when you can’t find signage or help in English
--love to talk with local people even if their English is hard to follow
--are willing to educate yourself some about the culture and history before you leave home
--will eat anything (OK, not raw horsemeat dripping with blood…)
--love to walk in both city and country and are fit enough to walk (one mile or so with luggage/ at least three miles without luggage),
--will use Japanese-style accommodations that, while they don’t have much space and you need to sleep and sit on the floor, are still comfortable, especially for sleeping.
--are willing to do most of your planning before your trip, but some of your planning during your trip
--have at least three weeks for your trip or just want to spend a week in one or two places.

You will NOT love our kind of trip IF you:
--love shopping or feel the need to buy gifts (OK, yes, we did bring some simple gifts from the States to Japan for our home-stay hosts and we did stop at the airport on our way back to the States to buy a couple gifts of food)
--want to experience a lot of pubbing or nightlife. Although we would have liked to do karaoke with Japanese people, we never made it a high enough priority for the opportunity to arise.
--don’t want to take public transportation
--want to spend time at hot baths and onsens. Although we did use traditional Japanese baths privately as a couple at ryokans or minshukus several times and we did use the excellent Dormy Inn gender-separated baths one time, we didn’t go to any outdoor onsens in Japan, although we understand it is an important cultural experience. We probably should have, but it was lower on our priority list and we didn’t spare the time.

Below is a list of what we’d do again and what we’d do differently if we had it to do over.

What we did and would do again:

1. Used a combination of sources to plan, including tourbooks, an itinerary from a university-led alumni tour, online blogs (especially: and

2. Bought an out-of-print copy of Gateway to Japan (Kodansha Guide) from Amazon and used it before our trip and then tore out and carried along pages that covered our trip. This was one of many wonderful suggestions on the Fodor’s forums, from Mara and others.

3. Posted our itinerary plans on Fodor’s forums and received its readers’ invaluable feedback to help us revise and refine it.

4. Stayed in a combination of Japanese accommodations, from reasonably-priced business hotels to minshukus, ryokans, and stays in private apartments through We describe this experience and provide the details of the hotels at Item d above, including the websites we used to make the reservations. BTW, particularly useful was the English-language version of

5. Made use of Garmin Nuvi1450 GPS constantly for getting around. We were able to purchase an SD Card with 2011 GPS roadmaps in English for all of Japan for $180 from It helped us find all our hotels and tourist attractions; to find restaurants and private homes, we first used Googlemaps to find geographic coordinates of the address and then entered the coordinates into the GPS. . By the way, we don’t need the SD card anymore, so if anyone wants to buy it, let me know at [email protected] - $100. Even if you need to buy the Nuvi device in which to put the card, it’s definitely a low-cost way to utilize GPS in English.

6. Used our credit-union-issued Visa credit card to pay whenever we could and otherwise used our Visa debit card to withdraw cash to pay for things. We found ourselves comfortable carrying a lot of cash in Japan, as it was advised in travel blogs. Neither card charged any transaction fees and both gave very good exchange rates.

7. Brought our Netbook, Kindle, and two smartphones (4 devices, total). For our Android smartphone, we authorized Sprint to block data reception so that we didn’t get charged for downloads of info. These are “world phones” so we could use them for calls ($1 a minute) and for texts (50 cents each). We could also use them for the internet whenever free wi-fi was available, which happened at some hotels and some cafes and some bus/train stations. We copied all our hotel confirmations and also the online Japan Guides onto both of our smartphones and onto all 4 devices, plus we transferred tips and information about our hotels from TripAdvisor. We also copied other useful information. We didn’t need to use the internet to access this information.

8. Downloaded the Japanese-English language app version of jibbigo onto our smartphones ($13) each, which works without wi-fi. Even when it didn’t work effectively, it was a great conversation piece and toy. We liked to thank its Fodor Forum recommender for the tip.

9. For the few things we forgot or didn’t want to carry, we bought them at the 99 Yen store. We needed 8 items and the store had them all.

What we’d do somewhat differently:

1. Would have spent more time before we left to locate and download online pictures of major historical sites and other must-sees and would have also brought a hard-copy tourbook with lots of pictures and descriptions because we very often found the English signage to be inadequate or confusing, especially at Nikko and at major sights in Kyoto. We also would have bought at least one travel guidebook for our Kindle (probably Rough Guides because it’s not used as much so you don’t end up at the same restaurants you’ll find in Lonely Planet, an overused source, and because it’s great for describing public transportation options and minshukus.)

2. Found more time for Kyoto. We had six days in Kyoto, in addition to 3 days in Nara, but it wasn’t enough. If we remained limited to five weeks total for our trip, our first option would be to omit Kurashiki and Okayama to free up two days for Kyoto. While these cities were nice, they weren’t special enough. And, we probably would skip the Folk Museum near Takamatsu, although we really enjoyed it. If we could have added two or three more weeks, we would have spent 4 more days in Kyoto, to include, among other things, a daytrip to Ise, and then tried to spend more time near the pilgrimage/hiking areas near Koyasan and also gone to Beppo and elsewhere in Kyushu.. In fact, no matter what, we would have needed even more time for this trip if the weather hadn’t been so good. We never missed a day of sight-seeing due to bad weather except at on the 2nd-to-last full day of our trip, and we didn’t mind that because we spent such an interesting day in the Tokyo suburbs with our airbnb hostess.

3. Used our smartphone to take more pictures of maps and signs in English that we came upon while touring, so that when we arrived at a crucial turn in a path where there was inevitably only Japanese signage, we had something to refer to.

4. Provided ourselves with more and better telephone options. First, we’d buy a Japanese phonecard and not have been so hesitant to use Japanese payphones, which are easy to find and use and not expensive. Next, before we left, in the States, I should have bought a Chinese phone card useable in Japan for my unlocked cellphone. I’m sure the vendors at the Chinatown nearest our home could have helped us. Finally, it took awhile to realize that Sprint had not set up our Android world phones correctly and posted incorrect written instructions online and so we were initially having problems making phone calls. We should have learned from Sprint in advance how to contact them if calls weren’t going through. On the other hand, we don’t regret not renting a phone in Japan; it just seems too expensive for what you get. Of course, if you have an iphone rather than an Android, you may have more options.

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