I love planning my trips in advance, dreaming for months and months, studying and reading a multitude of articles, reviews and diaries on the web: this summer I chose Japan, the remote Land of the Rising Sun.
My Suggestions in brief (for more details read below!):
- Accommodation: Airbnb local houses, traditional ryokan, traditional gassho-zukuri house (Ainokura), monastery (Koyasan);
- WiFi: Pocket Wifi to be booked in advance and collected at the airport;
- Japan Rail Pass: to be booked in advance at an H.I.S office;
- Hyperdia App: App to be downloaded to check trains time schedule and itineraries
I bought the flight in February (Klm and Air France), checked the passport (no visa were needed and no vaccinations required) and started to define the itinerary (the full schedule in the article: On the Road through central Japan – two weeks itinerary).
Once the main stops were almost decided I booked the accommodations through Booking and Airbnb: I carefully selected a mix of Airbnb houses, modern hotels and, of course, traditional ryokans.
I traveled through the country by train mostly using the Japan Railway (JR) showing my Japan Rail Pass (JRP). In July (it last three months from the date you purchase it) I bought the one lasting 14 days at an H.I.S office (they do not charge any additional fee to the official price) and I activated it the same day I arrived at the airport in Tokyo. It is the most convenient and useful pass, the best ever.
If you are planning to travel across Japan the second essential thing to book is a Pocket WIFI. I rented it using the service of Global Advanced Communications: I collected it at the post office inside the airport and I returned it putting the provided envelope into a mailbox at the airport before the departure. Although it could be nicely argued that is most adventurous to be able to survive without a connection I think it is always better to be sure you will find a help online if needed!
Before leaving I have been told from different people the most alarming advices: the cost of living is very high, the Japanese do not speak a word in english, directions at the train and metro stations are absolutely obscure and you will get lost, the only food you will eat is sushi,..
In my opinion none of the above is true!
I found an excellent system of transportation that made me feel always able to precisely plan my transfers: using the Hyperdia App on my phone I found my way towards every destination following the connections proposed and showing the JRP at the entrance of the station.
All the Japanese I met were marvelous: every time I looked a little bit lost someone approached me to ask how to help me, every host spoke english or he did his best to communicate and explain himself, the nicest waitress followed me outside a bar to give me an umbrella because it suddenly started to rain!
In Japan I tasted a variety of delicious, simple and fresh food: I did not select the restaurants using any kind of guide but I followed my instinct looking at the menus outside the doors! No regrets! The food was always great and cooked in so many different ways: from classic sushi, perfect and very light tempura, grilled meat (Kobe meat is very good) and fish (on stones, plates, leafs, ..), soba and udon hand-made (a special mention to Sumikyu restaurant in Kanazawa) to various vegetables or seaweeds soups and ramen.
One of the best experience I had is the staying at a traditional gassho-zukuri house in Ainokura (Unesco World Heritage site): the entire village is so well preserved, quiet and pictoresque you really feel you are walking through history imagining the scenes of the ancient rural japanese life.
Thanks to the care and solicitude of the exquisite owner of the gassho Nakaya Minshuku I had the chance to eat a very good traditional dinner, partially cooked in the small fire in the center of the main room, and to try for the first time the salty japanese breakfast: crispy seaweeds, wakame seaweeds, miso soup, white rice, deep fried tofu, soy sauce and tea. Maybe this not a taste everyone appreciate in the morning but it is a fun experience and I have to admit I really enjoyed it!
Moreover I soon understood it would have been great to have a chance to visit a tea plantation, considering the role of this ancient beverage in the japanese food tradition.
Few months before leaving I contacted by email a nice end friendly woman working at the Hibiki-an plantation in Uji (south of Kyoto): I had the first experience of the well-known kindness and politeness of the Japanese. She immediately offered to be my guide for free and on the agreed day she walked me through a magnificent tea plantation explaining the process of the harvest, processing and preparation of different quality of tea!
Now that I’m back one of the moment I will never forget is the first sight of three geisha crossing a road right in front of me in the Gion area in Kyoto: the beauty and perfection of their faces, hairstyle and kimonos are so fascinating I spent the rest of the following days hoping to meet one of them again!