I went on my third trip to Japan for about a week in the Summer of 2016.
My first time in Japan was when I was thirteen. My older sister was living there, so I went on a two week trip with my mom.
In 2010 I went with my friend Anna who is native to Japan. She planned out what ended up being an amazing, and jam packed two week trip. You can read all about that trip in my blog posts here.
This trip was different for a number of reasons, because this time around I was the veteran traveling with my friends Mark, Heather and her son JL.
To give a bit of background, I took Japanese classes for three years at the Tenri Institute in New York, but I still don’t consider myself fluent. It was a very low pressure hour long class that took place twice a week. As of the writing of this blog post I infrequently interact with Japanese speaking people, and just speak a few words of Japanese to my cats Uni and Ebi.
I went in to this trip feeling like I was expected to be a “white robe” character from the game Journey guiding people through, when really I still felt like someone still learning the ropes. For my friends’ first trip to Japan I planned our trip mostly around places I had been to, which would make things easier for me.
I read some blog posts by Asian Americans traveling in Japan which made me extra anxious. It seems that if you’re Asian and traveling with a bunch of white people, the locals will understandably tend to expect you to speak for everyone in all encounters. My experience speaking Japanese to natives has always been positive, but the idea of disappointing so many people with my lackluster skills made me apprehensive.
I’m going to write blog posts for each day I was there, sprinkle in some tips and useful things I learned, and then finish off with a final blog post that compiles all those tips together both for future me and anyone who reads it.
We had only seven days for our entire trip, so I made a document planning out each day. Fortunately, there were only a handful of things which were time sensitive. Those were a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, and also a trip to Satsuki and Mei’s House around Nagoya (sensing a theme?)
The MOST IMPORTANT part of the trip was going to the Ghibli Museum to see the short film “Mei and the Kittenbus” which was on Mark’s bucket list. For no good reason, I waited too long to get tickets for the museum. If you live outside of Japan the typical way to get tickets to the museum is via a travel agency. In Japan, they sell the tickets at the Lawson convenience store.
There are only so many tickets available per day for the museum, and also each travel agency only has a certain allotment of tickets. The agency I checked was already sold out for when we were going!
Fortunately Anna did some research, and found out that coincidentally the official Lawson website was opening up online ticket sales to foreigners the EXACT TIME the last of the tickets were going up for sale (the 10th day of the month before you want to go). Tickets went on sale at 10:00 AM June 10th Japan time so Mark was waiting on the website and immediately got them!
SO MUCH THANKS to Anna for the tip!!!
For the tickets to Satsuki and Mei’s House I used the website GoVoyagin which is a travel agency in Japan. I ordered them, and got instructions for how to pick up the tickets at their office in Shibuya once I was in Japan (If you’re staying at a hotel, they will deliver your tickets there)
Mark booked an apartment in Shibuya via Trip Advisor (which he later found was also listed on AirBnb). The apartment included a pocket wifi, and also detailed instructions for how to get there from Narita and Shibuya station.
I also booked an Airbnb for our one night in Kyoto. I found a listing for a traditional style Japanese house that could accommodate up to 10 people! There were only four of us, but it was nice to sleep in a place with tatami mats and futons on the floor (they also had a bed with a frame).
I say “traditional style” to describe the house, but the truth is that most places you’re probably going to go to in Japan still have modern fixtures, appliance and washlets on their toilets. Any time my friends expressed a concern about not having some sort of modern luxury I just reassured them that for the most part going to Japan is like going to the future.
Another bit of preparation I did was to print out a list of every place that was on our itinerary (both in English and Japanese). I figured if we ever found ourselves hopelessly lost we could find someone, point at the place and get directions. This ended up being completely unnecessary because we could use Google Maps and the pocket mifi for all our directions.
JAPAN TRAVEL TIP: Google Maps is the best way to find directions to places via the subway. There are some apps on the iTunes store, but some don’t give directions using all available train lines. The reason is that Japan’s subway system is privately owned by several companies, so one app might not include Japan Railway lines in its directions.
The most useful bit of preparation I did was to make a list of places we were going to along with Google Map links. This was INCREDIBLY convenient because it meant I never had to type in the name of a place or worry I was taking us to the wrong place. Traveling can be extremely stressful, so little things like this let me have one less thing to worry about.
I designed our itinerary with relaxed days in between days the major outings. While seven days isn’t that much time for a place like Japan, I didn’t want to exhaust us every single day. On the relaxed days I made a list of places to shop or eat at so we had no hard commitments and could feel out during the day. With a group of three adults and one child, I think this was a good way to pace the vacation. If I ever go again by myself or with one other person I’ll probably schedule the trip tighter.
With all this preparation done we were ready for our trip to Japan!