Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Itinerary and Budget: Tokyo to Hiroshima

Japan has always been on top of my to-visit list, but my wallet, convinced that it is a very expensive country, kept pushing it to the bottom. Then my brain slapped my wallet hard on its leatherette face and said "If not now, when? This mustache is not getting any younger." I bought a ticket with nary a travel companion in sight.

It was months after buying a plane ticket did I find some travel companions. When they themselves finally found and bought not so expensive tickets, we came up with a 10-day itinerary.

Where we spent our 10 days

Arrive in Narita, blaze from Tokyo to Hiroshima, spending just a day or two in each of the six prefectures our ten days would allow, then wave またね "mata ne" from the plane in Kansai. We and our wallets can do this!  頑張って! Ganbatte!

This trip happened in 2015 when the exchange rate was 0.38 PHP per 1 JPY.
At the current exchange rate of 0.45, the total in Philippine peso would be 45,325.

I've always thought I'd need about Php 10,000 per day in Japan. As you can see from the table of expenses above, I was wrong. And I'm so glad I was wrong. Yes, it is still expensive for a white collar worker like me. And yes, this is the most expensive trip I have ever been on. But not an impossible trip, see?

Plane Ticket. Regular priced roundtrip plane tickets between the Philippines and Japan can go from Php 10,000 to Php 25,000 depending on the destination and on the airline. Like all of my posts about expenses, I did not include the cost of the plane tickets because I usually buy them six to twelve months in advance, during airline promotions. Since Filipinos need a visa to enter Japan, it is recommend to obtain a visa first before buying a ticket. I risked it though knowing full well that if I wasn't granted a visa, my tickets would not be refunded.

Visa. Philippine passport holders should apply for a visa not more than three months before their intended date of travel. Visa applications can only be processed through accredited travel agencies. Applying for a single entry visa would cost Php 1,300. In addition to the visa fee, expect to shell out some cash to obtain these requirements: photo, bank certificate, birth certificate, marriage certificate.

Accommodation. I had set a budget of Php 13,500 per person for 9 nights for accommodation (average of Php 1,500 a night) and the one we had assigned to take care of booking accommodations did a very good job of keeping within budget. We stayed in Airbnb apartments, a hostel, and even a minshuku (a family operated bed and breakfast)! There are many properties on Airbnb, you just have to be meticulous as the initial price shown is the cost per night only; there will be additional fees (cleaning fee and service fee). A dorm bed in a hostel would cost 2,500 JPY and above; most hostels in Japan do not offer free breakfast. The most expensive accommodation for this trip was the minshuku in Ainokura Village, which set us back 8,800 JPY (Php 3,350) each for a night, but this also included awesome home cooked breakfast and dinner and a very memorable stay at a farmhouse.

Food. You can save on food if you are willing to eat onigiri (rice balls) for your every meal. We decided not to be such tightwads and ate at a variety of places. Sometimes we'd buy boxed meals from the convenience store, sometimes from shops at the stations, sometimes we'd eat in fastfood donburi or soba or curry shops, sometimes in restaurants (like Nishiazabu Gogyo in Roppongi, their black ramen was so good!). Our meals would range from 400 JPY to 1,000 JPY, spending an average of 2,300 JPY per day.

Transportation. Fares in Japan are really high (minimum fare for the subway is 150 JPY) and taking the shinkansen (bullet train) would cost a chunk. It would be expensive to get lost in Japan. It is best to research and plot your itinerary beforehand then see which passes would be beneficial for your trip. In Kyoto, we forgot to buy a 1-day subway pass (600 JPY); with the pass we could have saved 130 JPY. The 7-day JR pass (29,110 JPY) ate almost a third of my budget, but with our itinerary, we also made the most out of it (we used the JR Pass for a total of 55,530 JPY on regular fares, taking the shinkansen seven times, and local lines and limited express trains several times).

Admission Fees. Most of the temples, castles, and gardens will charge an admission fee from 200 JPY to 1,500 JPY. Some would also have audio guides available for rent. Some would also offer combo tickets. Do research beforehand.

Others. For this trip, we did not rent a pocket WiFi. Our Airbnb accommodations in Tokyo and in Osaka provided one, so we were connected in those cities. We survived going around Kyoto without one. What we did spend on were lockers to lessen our burden: we were staying just one night in Ainokura Village and did not need to take all our belongings with us; in Osaka, we left our bags in a locker because the check in time wasn't until late in the afternoon; on our last day, from check out time until flight time, we did not want to drag our bags around Osaka. Lockers can be found in every station, but not all stations will have the large lockers (700 JPY per day for a large locker; 500 JPY for a medium locker; 300 JPY for a small locker. The locker fee is per calendar day, not per 24-hour period).

In the end, I was tired (we were always on the go, moving from one place to another), but I was absolutely glad I did it. Even before the plane could take off for home, my brain was already plotting a return (with my starving wallet shivering at the thought).

Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima (you're here!)
(more soon)

Concentrate on Kansai (2016)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Roam Around Japan with a Swagger

With a swagger, a portable WiFi in my pocket, and these apps, I roamed around the Kansai Region of Japan (my 2016 solo trip) like I owned the place...at least that's how I imagined myself. The point is, with the help of these apps, I didn't look like a lost puppy in the streets of Japan. Or so I hope.

I didn't sleep in streets or alleys or subway stations in Japan like a homeless person thanks to Booking.com. I love this website/app because:
  • it is easy to use – I just enter the location, date, number of persons, and click search. And because I have a maximum budget, I filter it by price and choose from the list.
  • it has a map – it shows the exact location of the hotel/hostel/guesthouse/inn and also shows other nearby accommodations (and the corresponding price).
  • it encourages guests to leave reviews – guest reviews are important!
  • it offers free cancellation – most accommodations on Booking.com offer free cancellation up to a certain number of days before the trip.
  • it requires no down payment – most accommodations on Booking.com will only ask for credit card details to confirm the booking but won't charge it (unless you cancel the booking after the free cancellation period). There are also accommodations that don't require credit card details to book! Payment will be upon check in.
Download Booking.com app here: Android | iOS

In Japan, time is gold. And transportation fares are as expensive as gold! Before the trip, I pinned all the places I wanted to visit. Doing so helped me save time and money. How? During the trip itself...
  • I didn't have to search for places and reorient myself every time. Minutes saved.
  • I could change around my itinerary based on my energy level, weather, and the location/proximity of the sites I was interested in. Bus/Train fares saved.
  • I could find shortcuts or take less trodden paths, like alleys or through residential areas (an added adventure).
  • If I find something new and interesting that wasn't part of the plan, I could pin it on my map to remember its location in case I wanted to go back. Minutes saved from searching again and/or from racking my brains trying to recall the location.
Download Google My Maps app here: Android

Japan Trains
Japan's rail network is impressive that it can get impressively confusing. Even locals get confused! (I have seen it with my own eyes!) There are many different rail operators. There are many types of trains: shinkansen (bullet train), express, limited express, local, etc. In short, there are many choices to get from point A to point B anywhere in Japan! The Japan Trains app will pare down the options depending on the information you have entered. The results will show the departure time, arrival time, fare, and number of transfers. Click on one of the options to find out more about the route: which lines and connections to take, arrival and departure times for each connection, fare for each connection, and time it takes to transfer/walk between stations.

Download Japan Trains app here: Android

In the city of Kyoto, Arukumachi Kyoto app trumps the Japan Trains app. Although there are subway lines and railways in the city of Kyoto, most of the city's attractions can be reached by bus, and obviously the Japan Trains app is only for trains.

For Arukumachi Kyoto app, just enter the departure and arrival areas (it doesn't have to be specific, just enter the street or tourist spot) and it will give more specific suggestions (station, bus stops, or spots). Search results will give you several options to get to your destination, showing the departure and arrival times, total bus fare (and if the 1-day Kyoto City Bus pass can be used), number of transfers, and what modes of transportation to take. Click on one of the options to find out more about the route: which bus/subway/rail to take, arrival and departure times for each connection, fare for each connection, and time it takes to transfer/walk between stops. Click on a connection to view the map. What I love about Arukumachi Kyoto's map is that it shows your current location, so when you're on the bus and have no idea if your stop is approaching, just check the map and watch the dot (you) move. Don't forget to press the bus stop button nearest you lest you miss your stop.

Download Arukumachi Kyoto app here: Android | iOS

With the guidance of the weather app, I could strut around the streets not looking like a fool for not wearing the right clothes, for not being caught in the rain mid-strut without an umbrella, for not shivering while strutting on a windy day.

Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger (you're here!)

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
(more soon)

Concentrate on Kansai (2016)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan

Philippine passport holders can enter some countries visa-free. Unfortunately, Japan isn't one of them. It is best to apply for a tourist visa to Japan not more than three months before your intended travel date. Reason for this is that a single entry visa,  if granted, is usually valid for three months.

These are the requirements for a single entry tourist visa to Japan:
  • Philippine Passport – The passport should have your signature and should have at least two blank pages.
  • Application Form – Write N/A for not applicable items; do not leave blanks. Print the application form on A4 size paper. Do not forget to write the date and sign the form.
  • Photo – 4.5 cm x 4.5 cm, with white background, taken within six months from the date of application. Affix the photo on the application form.
  • Daily Schedule in Japan – Use the Schedule of Stay template found in the website. Indicate the address and contact numbers of the accommodations you plan to stay in.
  • Bank Certificate – should be issued within three months from the date of visa application
  • Photocopy of Income Tax Return (ITR Form 2316)
  • Birth Certificate – issued by NSO within one year from the date of visa application
  • Marriage Certificate – for married applicants; issued by NSO within one year from the date of visa application
  • Old passports with previous visas to Japan – If you have previous visas to Japan, there is no need to submit your birth certificate and marriage certificate.
Other documents that you may want to include:
  • Certificate of employment – if you are an employee. The document should contain your position, hire date, and salary.
  • Photocopy of company ID – if you are an employee
  • Photocopy of previous visas to Japan – no matter how old! Mine was from 1997!
  • Photocopy of plane ticket – if you were tempted to buy a promo ticket before applying for a visa. (Buying a ticket before applying for a visa is NOT recommended though.)
Note: All printouts and photocopies should be on A4 size paper.

For the list of requirements for other visa types, please refer to the Embassy of Japan in the Philippines website.

Tourist visa applications can only be processed through accredited agencies in Manila, Cebu, and Davao. The visa fee for a single entry visa is Php 1300 and the processing time is at least one week.

Of the four accredited agencies in Cebu, I processed mine through Friendship Tours in AS Fortuna St, Banilad, Mandaue City since it was the most accessible for me. They checked my requirements before accepting my application (if a document is lacking, they will wait for you to submit it before forwarding your application to the consulate). Upon acceptance of my application and requirements, I paid them and was issued a receipt with the application number. They contacted me through text message once the passport was ready for pickup.

I applied for a single entry visa and was unexpectedly and luckily granted a 5-year multiple entry visa. I don't know if having a used Japan visa no matter how old (mine was from 1997) played a part in that. As for the bank certificate, I read a blog that the blog author had about Php 60,000 in his account and was granted a visa for his 5-day planned trip; a friend had Php 80,000 in her account and was granted a visa for her 10-day planned trip. With this, I suggest having Php 60,000 as the minimum amount; Php 100,000 and above, even better. (The suggested amount is not a guarantee though—I really have no idea what the consul's basis are!—but I'm just sharing from what I have read and from friends' experiences.)

Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan (you're here!)
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
(more soon)

Concentrate on Kansai (2016)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Japan: Know Before You Go

Before going to the Land of the Rising Sun, it might help you to know...

...that their language is Nihongo or Japanese. こんにちは みんなさん! Konnichiwa, minna-san! Hello, everyone! Prepare yourself to be greeted in Japanese and see signs in Japanese, written in a mix of Kanji (Chinese characters), Hiragana, and Katakana (used for non-Japanese loanwords). But do not worry, most tourist sites will also have signs in English and will have staff who speak English.

...that their currency is the Japanese yen . One US dollar is about 100 JPY, or 1 JPY is about 0.50 PHP. The current exchange rate might be lower or higher (do check the current rate), but I used that conversion just to give me an idea how much I was about to spend on a ramen (for easier mental calculation; my brains don't work when hungry).

...that their watches are set to Japan Standard Time (JST) which is 9 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time or Coordinated Universal Time (GMT/UTC +9), or one hour ahead of the Philippines. Speaking of time, for the Japanese time is very important. So never ever be late!

Warm autumn colors at Tofukuji in Kyoto

...that the country has four seasons: winter (December to February), spring (March to May), summer (June to August), and autumn (September to November). Depending on what month you visit (and which part of Japan you go to; for example, Okinawa is located on the south and rarely goes below 9ºC in the winter months), be prepared with the right clothes.

...that Japan has a total land area of almost 378 sq. km., has 47 prefectures (these prefectures are further grouped into 8 regions), and has a million things to see and do. Thus a warning: planning a trip to Japan might be a bit of a challenge... a challenge on what not to include in the itinerary.

Type A (left) and Type B (right) plugs

...that Japan uses Type A and Type B plugs at 110V. Most mobile phone and gadget chargers nowadays can be used for 100 to 240V, so you probably won't need a voltage converter. Some hostels/accommodations might also have USB ports.

Transportation passes

...that Japan's transportation network is so extensive that it can get confusing. Adding to that confusion are the many passes to choose from: countrywide pass (like the Japan Rail Pass, which is best if you plan to travel between regions a many number of times for the duration of the pass), regional passes (12 options from JR East, 8 options from JR West, 6 options from JR Central, and other rail company-specific passes), down to city-specific passes (city bus passes, city bus and subway combo passes). Which pass should you buy?!?

Flytpack pocket WiFi

...that free WiFi is hard to come by. But there are many options for pocket WiFi rentals in Japan: Japan Wireless, PuPuRu, SoftBank, to name a few. But if you'd like to announce to the world the second your plane touches down in Japan, you can also opt to rent a pocket WiFi from Flytpack, a pocket WiFi rental company based in Taguig City whose Japan partner is SoftBank.

Know Before You Go (you're here!)
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
(more soon)

Concentrate on Kansai (2016)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wisdom from the Road #48

On stopping hunger up in the air #2

If your budget-airline-flight home will be hours long and you haven't pre-ordered an inflight meal, don't spend every last cent of your local currency before you enter the pre-departure area of the airport. Leave some to buy a snack or a boxed meal so you will have something to eat on your plane ride home...that's if the airline allows you to eat "outside" food (food not bought inflight). If your airline does not allow "outside" food, then you'll have some money to buy an expensive piece of snack or meal on the plane.

Before my night flight from Busan to Cebu, I made sure to buy a boxed meal from the convenience store at the pre-departure area of Gimhae International Airport. During the flight, when it was time for dinner, I whipped out my boxed meal and smacked my lips. My friend who was sitting beside me laughed when she saw the guy across the aisle eyeing my meal and hungrily holding his stomach.

For more lessons from the road, please visit Go Learn.