I’ve lived in Japan off and on for over 11 years now and have seen and answered a lot of questions about visiting Japan in that time. Of course, in the months leading up to April, most of the questions revolve around visiting Japan during hanami season. I’ve offered up a lot of advice to many different people on a variety of online forums, and as I seem to keep repeating myself, I’ve decided to put a lot of that information here.
So, if you are thinking about visiting Japan in the spring (end of February to early May), this information is for you.
Kyoto (and Japan in general)
End of March/April is cherry blossom time and it’s the highest of high seasons in Kyoto. So, while it will be a pretty time to visit, it will also be packed with tourists, especially large Chinese tour groups. Japan (as a whole) and Kyoto (in particular) are not well-equipped for this sudden explosion of tourism. There are not enough hotel beds to go around, and it is no longer possible to stay in Osaka or Nara and commute daily to Kyoto – people stay as far away as Nagoya because there is absolutely nothing available. So once you figure out your schedule, book your accommodation as soon as you can (3-6 months in advance is best, but if you can do it earlier, do so). Another problem with so many tourists is that it slows down everything — the buses are packed which leads to problems like the locals can’t use them to get to work, but it also means you might be waiting at a bus stop and bus after bus will pass you by because they can’t take any more people. The excessive crowds mean that the roads in popular areas like Arashiyama and Gion will be so packed with people that traffic slows down to a standstill…I’m not saying it’s like this all the time, all day, but you should be prepared in case it does happen (so don’t plan too much in one day or you will get frustrated by delays). When you make your plans for Kyoto, plan to do one area per day so you can explore most of it on foot (or bicycle) to minimise the amount of time you have to travel by public transportation. And while buses are a popular option, don’t discount the trains or subway either – sometimes they will be much faster and convenient than the bus.
Also, during cherry blossom time a lot of sites will have night “illuminations,” where particularly scenic temples, shrines, and parks are lit beyond normal business hours. Going to see these would definitely be on the highlight list and could be added to each of your days. So if you don’t have enough time to see all the temples and shrines that you want to go to, you may be able to add them to the evening list of things to do. It will make for long days, but it’s an option.
The end of April sees the beginning of Golden Week, which sometimes starts on April 29th, depending on what day of the week it falls on. As it’s on a Friday this year, a lot of people will likely have the entire Golden Week off (April 29-May 5) so this will be another extremely busy season. The same advice applies – book accommodation and transportation as early as you can, even earlier if you are going to places that festivals or other events going on during that time. The cherry blossoms will mostly be gone by that time, unless you plan on visiting the northern parts of the country (Hirosaki is a famous place to see them), but other flowers and trees will be in bloom by then which will be worth visiting. Wisteria (called fuji in Japanese) tends to bloom in late April to early May, and there are many places to see it – in the Kyoto area, Byodoin Temple in Uji is a well-known spot, but the most stunning places must be either Kawachi Fuji Garden in Kitakyushu, or Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi (an easy day trip from Tokyo).
Japan is easy to get around even if you don’t speak or read the language (I barely do, despite all of my time here). All major trains, subways, trams, and buses that tourists are likely to use will have bilingual (sometimes multilingual) announcements, and written signs will be in both Japanese and English. The only problem would be in the real countryside, but most people are unlikely to go there. In terms of travel, Japan is not a “discount” country (other than for domestic airfares). A lot of people expect that if they book train tickets early here they will be cheaper, but the price in Japan is the same price year round. There’s no discount for buying or booking early (although there may be price increases during the busy season). In addition, Japan has the reputation of being insanely expensive (it’s not), so many people end up buying a 14-day rail pass for a 14-day trip thinking it will be a better deal for them. In fact, that would be a total waste of money. Rail passes are good for 2 or more long distance trips, but for daily trips within any particular city one can probably get by with a day pass that will cost between 500-1000 yen (or just paying the fare as you go).
Japan Rail Pass: For tourists only, must be purchased outside the country (although people may be able to buy them in Japan – a trial period for this is coming soon I think). Here are the current costs for an ordinary pass as of March, 2016:
7-day pass: 29,110 yen
14-day pass: 62,950 yen
21-day pass: 81,870 yen
A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is 13,800 yen, a return about 24,800 yen. So if you were going to visit those two cities, the pass would not really be worth it. You could use the pass for day trips, but in both Tokyo and Kyoto there are more (and sometimes better) options than JR lines so you’d end up paying out of pocket anyway. If you were going to do significant day trips outside those cities, it might be worth the cost (and less hassle).
There are other regional passes that are available too, and if you plan on spending more time in those areas, then they might be a better fit for what you want to do.
If you think you might want to spend more time in the Kanto area (the prefectures that surround and include Tokyo) there is a Tokyo-wide pass that costs 10,000 for 3 days of travel (including Shinkansen) anywhere in the Kanto region. It’s a terrific value and you can buy it anytime you want once you are in Japan. (I recently spent just over a week in Tokyo and used this pass for 3 out of 8 days — I got over 30,000 yen worth of travel for 10,000). This is available to anyone with a foreign passport (even foreign residents of Japan, which is unusual), so don’t forget to bring it when you buy the pass.
There are a few cheaper/alternative options as well.
- In terms of train travel, 3 times a year the Seishun 18 kippu is available. This “youth” ticket is available to anyone. It is not valid on the Shinkansen or limited express trains, so travel can be a bit more slow, but if you’ve got the time, it’s a nice way to see the countryside, something you don’t get when travelling on the Shinkansen. Generally speaking it’s available from March 1-April 10, July 20-Sept 10, and December 10-January 10. It costs 11,850 yen and you get a single ticket that allows for all-day train travel five times. One person could use the ticket 5 different days, or five people could use the ticket on one day (or any other combination). If you use it on 5 different days, you can travel as far as you can by midnight of any given day for only 2,370 yen. Many years ago my friend and I went from Hiroshima to Kagoshima using the Seishun 18 ticket, and it only took 14 hours to get there! (we didn’t plan our trains properly – no Hyperdia back then). At least we had good company.
- For buses, Willer Express is a popular option. Long-distance travel can be done during the day or at night, the latter saving you the cost of a night in a hotel, but definitely not as comfortable.
- Flying is one area where it is cheaper to book early. In many cases, it is cheaper than taking the Shinkansen, but not more convenient as airports are often far from city centres (the exception being Fukuoka – the airport is a 5-minute subway ride to Hakata station). However, it’s worth taking a look, depending on what your plans are, especially if you want to stay within a cheaper 7-day rail pass ticket, but need to do some long-distance travel.
So, if you want to minimise your rail travel/pass, you might look at flying into one city (Tokyo) and flying out of another (say Osaka, Hiroshima, or even Fukuoka). Or if you are doing a return flight out of one city, let’s say Tokyo, you could fly south from there (on arrival) to Hiroshima and work your way up north to Tokyo. Use Hyperdia.com to figure out train times and fares. The default has everything checked (including flights, JR and non-JR trains) but you can uncheck things you don’t need. For example, if you are using a rail pass, then the faster Nozomi trains on the Shinkansen are off limits for you. Return fares are generally 10% cheaper than two one-way fares.
Last, but not least: Regardless of how you are travelling when in Japan, if you are here during the busy season, the trains/buses/planes will be packed. Many people worry about making train or bus reservations, and the reality is, you can’t while abroad. But once you arrive in Japan, it should be one of the first things you do. That said, the worst that could happen is either you have to wait for a later train than what you want, or, you have to use the unreserved section of the train and will very likely not a have a seat for most, if not all, of the journey. But at least you’ll get to where you are going!
If you are spending time in Tokyo, Osaka (other than food and nightlife) has little to offer that will be any different. Of course, if you spend some time there, you can experience how different the culture and people are from those cities, but generally speaking, most tourists travel for sites and experiences, and if I had to choose only one, I would go with Tokyo. If you are in the Kansai region, it is better to focus on Kyoto (and nearby day trips just outside of the city), plus other towns and areas like Nara, Koya-san, and even Uji, rather than Osaka. If you are interested in seeing Japanese castles, the best ones to visit are the original ones (as opposed to reconstructed ones). In the Kansai area, Nijo-jo in Kyoto is a fun one with its nightingale floors, Himeji-jo in Himeji is phenomenal (the best in the entire country), and even Hikone Castle in Shiga (next to Kyoto) is another beautiful original keep. All of their grounds will be packed with cherry blossoms (and people too) but if you are going to see any castles, these would be the ones to do so.
I lived in Hiroshima for 2 years so I think it’s worth more than the 1/2 day or single day that most people give it (and Miyajima), but if you are in a rush both can be done in a day, although I think one each would be better. Takayama has a major festival in mid-April that a lot of people go to, but that would definitely be a place you would have to book accommodation as far in advance as possible (and figure out your transportation options). If I was planning a standard trip to Japan sticking to the tourist trail, then I would probably do 7 days in the Tokyo/Kanto region, 7 days in the Kyoto/Kansai region, and one or two days in Hiroshima and/or 2-3 days in another area. Both Kyoto and Tokyo could easily occupy you for a week, but 3-4 days is probably enough to get a taste of both cities. The other (let’s say) 4 days could be doing day trips. For example, 3 days in Tokyo, 2 in Nikko, 2 in the Mt. Fuji area (you have a few options there). Then 3 days in Kyoto, 1 day in Nara, 1 day for another day trip (Kurama, Kibune, Shiga, etc) – all staying overnight in Kyoto, then 1 day (overnight) in Koyasan, 1/2 day in Himeji (on the way to Hiroshima), 1.5 days in Hiroshima/Miyajima. The other 2 or 3 days could be spent in other places of interest, like Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Kanazawa, the Japanese alps, or even tacked onto the existing areas (Tokyo/Kyoto).
If you can arrange it, try doing your travel in the evenings. That way you won’t waste 1/2 a day checking out of your hotel, getting to your new destination, checking in again…Do it at the end of the day when most sites are closed – you’ll maximise the time you get in each particular location. If you do plan on doing that though, make sure your accommodation knows you’ll be in later in the evening, as some places may give your reservation to someone else OR may not accept you at all (small places, like ryokan, have stricter rules).
Final points: it’s really easy to travel independently here, so it’s not really necessary to do a group tour, unless it offers some specialised knowledge. That said, a lot of uni students (and other guiding groups) do free guiding at major tourist sites here in Kyoto and Nara, so you can get information that way if you are looking for it (I imagine that’s true in many tourist places around Japan). Unlike other places in Asia, when someone approaches you to help or guide you, they are not trying to sell you something, or otherwise trick you in some way; many Japanese genuinely want to meet “foreigners” (they never say tourists), and they are eager to pass on their knowledge of their culture and customs. However, if that’s not something you are interested in, that’s fine too. Also, onsens are everywhere in this country. Everywhere. You don’t need to go out of your way to find one. If you are staying in a mountainous area (say Fuji-Hakone or Nikko) then there will be plenty for you to experience. Similarly, one of the oldest and most famous onsen is in Hyogo (it borders Osaka, on the way towards Himeji (in Hyogo) and Hiroshima. It’s called Arima onsen and it’s just north of Kobe city.
While visiting Japan in the springtime has its challenges, it is definitely worth visiting at that time. Just do your best to be prepared and give yourself enough time to enjoy the serendipitous moments that can come your way.
I’d like to thank you for the advizes you gave to me. Everything was as expected, including the number of tourists, but went fine.