Three Gassho Houses at Shirakawago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you want to travel to Japan, one easy and common method is to join a package tour organized by a travel agent. However, joining a tour can be very expensive. If you prefer a good value travel experience, making your own itinerary is the better option. Aside from being cheaper, traveling on your own gives you more amount of freedom and flexibility. You are in charge of everything, which adds to the fun factor. You can choose wherever you want to go, as well as the areas (e.g. food, hotel, transportation) to splurge or skimp on to match with your satisfaction and budget.
I chose to write about Japan because most of my recent travels were bound there. The idea of vacationing there may be intimidating to some tourists because of the language barrier. Despite that, it is still possible to explore the place even if you do not know Nihongo. People in the city, especially students, know a bit of English. Also, Japanese people are very patient and they are willing to communicate with you even if it's just through hand gestures.
Planning ahead enables you to get the most out of the experience. If it is your first time to travel abroad, you may feel overwhelmed by all the preparations needed to be done. Here is a guide to help you get started:
1. Pick A Place
Japan is a big place so choosing your city of destination will simplify things. I usually pick from a list of accessible cities, that is, cities where international airports are located. If you want to get an overview of the entire Japan, you may also choose to travel from city to city. This may be a bit more complicated for first-time travelers, but still possible because cities are conveniently connected by bullet trains.
2. Write A Bucket List
Asimo, Japan's most famous robot, waving at the crowd.
If you decide to visit Japan, chances are, it is from the influence of what you see, read, and hear from other people. Which of these things attract you? Is it the sakura-flavored food, robots, anime toys, hot springs, themed-cafes, or Mt. Fuji? Surely, there must be some attractions you already have in mind. Make a rough list of those and refine them through research.
3. Make Your Itinerary
Based on your bucket list, you can now start listing down the places you are going to visit. Once you've completed your list, Google each place and jot down the location, transportation, fare, entrance fee (if there's any), opening days, and opening hours. Japan-Guide is one of the many websites that have those information.
4. Budget Your Trip
If you have limited money, you may want to budget your trip at this point. Your research would have already provided you a general idea on the fees required for your travel. If you are planning on a shopping spree, you need to bring extra cash. To save money, you can make a research on available packages that offer huge discounts for tourists. See what type of promo is applicable to you itinerary. If you are going to a lot of long-distance trips, availing train passes might save you a lot of Yen.
4. Book Your Plane Ticket
This step is one of the most exciting stage of travel preparation, as booking a flight turns your plans into a reality. You have an option to book a flight either through a travel agency or directly from airline companies. If you want to save time, choose a nonstop flight whenever possible. Consider the time of your arrival there. Some airport trains at Japan are closed around midnight or earlier, so if your estimated time of arrival is around the wee hours of the morning, consider booking a hotel near the airport.
5. Schedule Your Itinerary
Once you've booked your ticket, you would already have a specific date for your travel. Assign each place in your itinerary to a specific date. It's better to plan your route to save travel time. Do not forget to check if the places of interest would be open during the assigned date.
6. Reserve Your Hotel
Capsule hotel for the budget-conscious travelers.
Choosing a hotel is the trickier part. You can narrow down your lodging options by choosing your preferred district in the city of your destination. If you're going from places to places, you would have to book more than one hotel. A quick way to find the right hotel for you is to search through Tripadvisor. There you can pick hotels by lodging type, budget, and place. Read the critiques from credible reviewers. If staying at a fancy hotel is what makes your vacation complete, go for it. On the other hand, if you don't think splurging on a hotel is important (since you're out most of the day anyway), then opting for a hostel would be your best bet. Regardless of the type of lodging, convenience makes a huge difference, so check what's in the vicinity of your chosen hotel.
7. Make a List of Things to Bring
Now that your flight and hotel bookings are ready, you may move on to planning on the things you should bring. Create a checklist. You don't have to finish the checklist on one sitting. To have an idea on what type of clothing to bring, check the weather of your destination. Also, check the amenities of your hotel and see if anything essential is lacking. Once your checklist is complete, go over it and identify the objects that you do not have yet, so that you can buy it before you set off. To simplify your list, you may categorize your items according to clothing, essentials (such as money, passport, documents), gadgets, toiletries, etc. Keep in mind that the fewer items you bring, the better, so stick to what you really need. Unless you have a muscular escort with you, do not bring more than you can carry. Also, be informed about the airport rules on luggages and hand-carry items.
8. Prepare Luggage A Few Days Before Leaving
It wouldn't hurt to prepare your things ahead of time, not the night before the trip. That way, you'll have more time to gather the things that you forgot to include in your things-to-bring list. If you want to be sure, you may recheck your items the night before while ticking your checklist. There are many articles on the internet that will teach you how to pack your things more efficiently. Don't forget to include a name tag for your luggage.
9. Go to the Airport Early
It is wise to leave home early for the airport especially if you live in a heavily trafficked city. I recommend going to the terminal at least two hours before your departure time, so you'll have time to arrange things if problems arise. In addition, arriving early will prevent unnecessary stress.
After making all the planning required, just relax and enjoy. Vacationing isn't just about planning and sticking to every detail. There is always room for flexibility as you discover more things during your travel. While you may still bring your gadgets with you, it will be better if you only use them as needed. Engage your senses firsthand while you're there. Learn all you can from your visit and create happy memories that will last a lifetime. Bon voyage!