Japan Experienced Like Never Before

In Arthur's Japan Trip, Part 1 in Japan by SumoFreak11

Introduction

Welcome to my first ever travel blog! This blog is primarily curated for friends and family who’ve been harassing me about my trip but I’ve gone ahead and posted it online for all to utilize. This blog could be useful to anyone who’s planning a trip to Japan or just wants to learn more about the magnificent country. My particular experiences occurred in the midst of the corona virus pandemic which means your experiences may greatly differ.

I’ve detailed my trip day by day and listed places I stayed, places I visited, things I learned, things I’d recommend (or not), and things you should know before traveling to Japan. If you have any other suggestions or questions please don’t hesitate to ask! I’d love to provide any assistance I can in planning a trip to Japan as I think it’s something everyone should experience at least once in their life.


It all started on November 8th, 1988 when I opened my eyes to this marvelous & crazy world. My name is Arthur Bahr and I’m a pretty average guy from a little wine & beer loving town just outside of San Francisco, California, USA. I work in hospitality and am also an assistant coach for a local high school soccer team. I play soccer, love video games, and can’t seem to watch enough anime to satisfy needs (if I had one superpower it would be to stop time so I could binge all the existing anime). In fact, that’s what sparked my desire to conduct this trip – I’m absolutely obsessed with the Japanese culture and anime. The level of respect, honestly, cleanliness, and just overall history is so fascinating and I wanted to experience it firsthand. You can learn more about me, my work, or read my other blogs on my profile page.

You’re welcome to skip around the blog as you see fit as some days are obviously more exciting than others. You have the option to read the entire blog or you can catch a good overview of each day in the summary located near the top of each post.

The realization that a trip to Japan was possible

The actual realization that I could finally go through with a trip like this occurred way back in 2017 when I’d saved up some money and things began clicking with work. My future was looking bright and while I don’t recall the actual moments that triggered it, I can confidently say it started with a flight search that yielded some affordable options.

My work primarily consists of managing the bars at weddings, office parties, or any other excuse people have to spend money, get drunk, and have fun. This job keeps me suuuper busy from about May to August and again from late November to mid-December. Most recently, I connected with some fellows who’ve been doing “valet” (basically butler) work for really wealthy people all around the Bay Area. Not only does this fit my need for a flexible schedule, it also pays really well and I get to meet all kinds of famous people (and see their ridiculous houses!). One of my other many jobs in which I’m insanely passionate about is my coaching. I coach high school soccer with two other alumni friends from early November to about mid-February (depending on our playoff results). To make this trip happen, I decided I’d wedge it between the end of my soccer season and the beginning of wedding season in order to miss out on the least amount of work possible. I landed on the dates of March 4th to April 15th which would give me a little over 40 days to explore to my hearts content. The planning phase came next! I had to decide just where I’d travel and just what I wanted to see. * I should mention that I also manage 2 large social groups (a little over 25,000 members in total) around the San Francisco area and have produced and executed group trips to San Diego and Seattle on two separate occasions – thus have some experience in planning trips.

The Planning Phase

I like to do quite a bit of research before making any plans and feel I’m pretty good at it overall. I’ve broken this research into five important steps which you’re welcome to use when planning any future trips of your own.

Step 1 – Learn the Language

I didn’t need to be fluent but I did want to understand the basics and be able to ask for simple things. I began this by doing some basic research online in regards to what apps or sites were the best for learning a new language. This led me to downloading 6 apps and paying for 2 online courses (I didn’t pay for the 6 apps – just did the free lessons). I have 2 large whiteboards in my room which allowed me to enhance my studies and practice my writing on a somewhat regular basis. The “planning” phase to the “execution” phase was over a few years so I obviously didn’t practice Japanese constantly the whole time since I landed in Japan confident with only the bare basics.

Recommended Apps (for learning Japanese)

Udemy Japanese CourseDuolingo (phone app)LingoDeer (phone app)
Memrise (phone app)Drops (phone app)Japanese! (phone app)

Step 2 – Survey the Locals

To help with practicing the language but also get some insider knowledge, I downloaded an app called “HelloTalk” where people from all over the world can find pen pals to help them study different languages. Naturally, like with any app where you can communicate and have a profile, I threw up a semi-decent photo of me and began to post some random, but rich, content as I messaged every cute Japanese girl who’d been active in the past month or so. I began several conversations and soon was able to poll a number of them about their favorite places & where they’d recommend visiting throughout Japan.

Step 3 – Learn from Others’ Experiences

Next, I did some basic googling in search of other blogs from travelers who’d shared their experiences. I found several useful blogs that shared their entire trip plans, experiences, and what they learned from it all. After combining about 4 different blogs, doing some strategic solo research (googling “where to visit in Japan”), asking for suggestions from friends on Facebook, annnnnnnd taking the recommendations from my harem on HelloTalk, I was able to create a pretty long and amazing list of places to visit. I had the puzzle and was ready to begin putting the pieces in place.

I’ve listed below some of the more important things I discovered during this step.

Travel Insurance – Travel insurance is pretty important for anyone traveling anywhere outside of their country. It’s always good to know what your health insurance covers and what it doesn’t. I found it cheapest and easiest to just get some basic travelers insurance for the days I’d be out of the country. After a bit of research I landed on WorldNomads.com travel insurance which is overall pretty affordable and covers every normal situation you might find yourself in.

JR Pass – I also discovered that there is a Japan Rail Pass which one can purchase prior to their arrival in Japan. You legitimately have to order this in advance for some reason and can’t buy it in-person once in Japan. The pass covers unlimited rides on the largest rail-line in Japan – the JR Line. Some other restrictions associated with this pass is that you MUST be a “temporary visitor” and can’t be on a visa or a resident. Here is a breakdown of the prices.

TypeGreenGreenOrdinaryOrdinary
DurationAdultChildAdultChild
7-day44,810 yen22,400 yen33,610 yen16,800 yen
14-day72,310 yen36,150 yen52,960 yen26,480 yen
21-day91,670 yen45,830 yen66,200 yen33,100 yen

There are essentially 3 different types of passes depending on how long you plan on traveling. The Green refers to the “Green Cars” which are just first class train cars that are typically located on longer distance trains. It provides better seats and reserved seating – I wouldn’t personally recommend spending the extra money.

While many reviews boast of the ease of using the pass, after digging a bit deeper, I realized that I’d personally be staying in cities for several nights each and not traveling often enough to make up for the savings over the amounted number of days. I also found out that the pass doesn’t include the “bullet train” (Shinkansen) which is a very quick train specialized in getting across Japan in quick fashion. I would recommend this pass though if you’re coming for a shorter trip and will be doing medium-range traveling quite regularly.

SIM Cards – While traveling to a different country, unless you spoken with your phone provider, there’s a good chance that your phone number, SMS messaging, and data will stop working altogether. With an “inactive” SIM card you can still use specific apps on your phone via Wi-Fi. Your basic SMS messaging won’t work but you can still use Facebook Messenger, Skype, LINE (super popular in Asian countries), WhatsApp, and so on. The best option is to plan for this in advance and purchase a SIM card that will work in your destination country prior to leaving for your trip. Another, more common option is to seek out somewhere to purchase a tourist SIM once you touch down at the airport. This SIM which will provide you with some data to use your phone without Wi-Fi (although your phone number and SMS still won’t work). I spent a lot of time in Japan without data and it made traveling and just simple things very difficult. Once you’ve purchased a SIM card you’re set to use the data and your phone. **Some SIM cards even come with a temporary phone number that you can use to contact people. In a country such as Japan, you can purchase SIM cards or more data at many electronic stores. I recommend between 3-5 GB data per month depending on how much you’ll need your GPS or how often you’ll watch or send video wihtout Wi-Fi.

Suica Card / PASMO – These little cards are a HUGE necessity in Japan. They can be purchased at most stations but allow you to easily enter and exit stations and not even have to worry about the exact costs of the trip. They are essentially “cash cards” that you can add money to anytime you want. They can be used not only for transportation, but also to purchase convenience store items, pay bills, purchase things from the vending machines, buy groceries, and even clock in and out of work. It took me far too long to get one of these cards but they make simple travel around Japan sooooo much easier.

Japan Cash Cards

Step 4 – Map it Out

Alright, I now have my dates, a long list of places to [ideally] visit, and a budget (I gave myself roughly $140 a day with hotel – I planned on traveling pretty comfortably).  This is where the fun starts!

Flight:  I found myself a flight that was somewhat affordable and was even able to use my credit card points to pay for it. This is a trip to experience an amazing country and I’m super flexible so the flight I booked had a convenient layover in Beijing for 23 hours both ways. 

US citizens can travel to Japan for 90 days without filing for a visa – all you need is to have a departing flight booked within the 90 day limit. You’ll be referred to as a “temporary visitor”.

China only allows US citizen into the country for no more than 24 hours without a visa. You also aren’t even allowed to leave the airport without confirmation of a hotel or “sponsor” of sorts. Anyhow, I’m thinking this is awesome, I’ll hop on HelloTalk and find myself a cool Chinese girl or two to show me around for the evening.

Destinations:  Flight is locked in and my final destination is one of the largest airports just outside of Tokyo, now it’s time to figure out where to visit first. I always love to see as much as possible and I don’t mind hitting a city for one night and sleeping minimal hours in order to experience as much as I can (as a kid my family was always that one family who showed up at the gate of Disneyland 10 minutes before it opened and even skipped meals in order to experience the whole park to the fullest).  With that said, I had 2 things that weighed heavily on my decision of destinations.

[1] Am I in contact with a girl from there who can show me around and help with translations.

[2] How much of a “desirable” destination is it?

*From the list I created in Step 3, I gave each place a rating to highlight destinations that were mentioned more than once or had gotten extra emphasis on visiting.

After weighing all this information I was able to create a pretty solid map which was broken into 4 Parts. The map shows the first outline of my trip which was later changed as the departure date grew closer and then the corona virus obviously effected the final plan quite drastically…

My Original Plan
Part (nights)Original PlanPart (nights)Revised PlanPart (nights)Actual Trip
Pt. 1
14 nights
Tokyo 6 nights
Nikko 1 night
Tokyo 4 nights
Yokohama 1 night
Kamakura 1 night
Hakone 1 night
Pt. 1
14 nights
Tokyo 6 nights
Nikko 1 night
Tokyo 4 nights
Yokohama 1 night
Kamakura 1 night
Hakone 1 night
Pt. 1
17 nights
Tokyo (Shinjuku) 6 nights
Nikko 1 night
Tokyo (Oshiage) 4 nights
Hakone 2 nights
Enoshima (day trip)
Kamakura 1 night
Yokohama 1 night
Tokyo (Shinjuku) 2 nights
Pt. 2
17 nights
Osaka 6 nights
Nara (day trip)
Koyasan 2 nights
Kobe 2 nights
Kyoto 7 nights
Pt. 2
4 nights
Kanazawa 1 night
Takayama 1 night
Tsumago 2 nights
Pt. 2
14 nights
Osaka (Namba) 4 nights
Nara (day trip)
Kyoto 5 nights
Koyasan 2 nights
Kyoto 3 nights
Pt. 3
5 nights
Kanazawa 2 nights
Takayama 1 night
Tsumago 2 nights
Pt. 3
11 nights
Osaka 4 nights
Nara (day trip)
Koyasan 2 nights
Kobe 1 night
Kyoto 4 nights
Pt. 3
6 nights
Kanazawa 2 nights
Takayama 2 nights
Magome 2 nights
Pt. 4
6 nights
Hakodate 1 night
Otaru 1 night
Sapporo 3 nights
Tokyo 1 night
Pt. 4
12 nights
Fukuoka 2 nights
Seoul 5 nights (*)
Sapporo 3 nights (*)
Otaru (day trip)
Tokyo 2 nights (*)
Pt. 4Matsumoto 14 nights
Takayama 20 nights
Koshien 11 nights
Kobe 12 nights
Kyoto 8 nights
Kobe 4 nights
Osaka 4 nights
Tokyo (Akasaka) 8 nights
Narita 3 nights
Sapporo 7 nights
Otaru (day trip)
Fukuoka 3 nights
Tokyo (Shibuya) 8 nights
Tokyo (Roppongi) 16 nights
Tokyo (Shibuya) 30 nights
Tokyo (Akebonobachi) —

TBD…
(*) Means I’d fly there

Housing: Most places like to have 3-4 days’ notice if you’re going to stay (it’s a courteous thing everywhere really) so I wanted to avoid last second bookings which is rather difficult given last second decisions are common for me. Furthermore, I was traveling for over 40 days and a LOT could change in that amount of time.

**cough**corona virus **cough** (no pun intended)

I decided to book some conveniently located hotels for Part 1 & Part 2 of my trip which would cover approximately 18 days. I tried to find hotels opposed to other options as I’m personally not a huge fan of hostels (although I by no means discourage anyone from using them – they’re awesome ways to meet people and travel for cheap). I like to have my space and be able to avoid social situations to rejuvenate.

If you are okay with hostels, I highly recommend K’s House which is chain located all throughout Japan and has awesome staff, clean rooms, and super friendly residents. They even have a program where you can work a few shifts in exchange for free housing.

Japan is also known for their “capsule hotels”, which are literally sleeping pods with a TV and a bed – they’re perfect if you literally just want to crash for an evening and don’t need the bells and whistles.

You can read an articles HERE that details some types of accommodations you’ll find throughout Japan.

I was personally able to find some cool hotels via Hotels.com (for every 10 nights I’ll get a free night for the average value of the previous 10 nights – essentially 10% off) and by using my credit card points’ travel service.  It’s pretty hard to decipher all the random reviews and ratings for hotels but I’m pretty simple so I look at location as #1, cost or value as #2, and cleanliness as #3.

Now that I have some hotels booked, my flight booked, and a decent list of things to see, I was finally ready to focus on my holiday work and soccer season!  Overall, work was crazy during the holidays which isn’t too bad as it equates to a nice chunk of change. On top of that, the high school boys were tearing it up and playing super hard for each other. The end of December eventually rolled around and I could hear whispers about the corona virus while we were fighting a pretty rough flu season in the Bay Area. I never get sick and even I caught what was diagnosed as pneumonia around NYE which was a downer but probably healthier in the end compared to what I would’ve been doing that night.

Make Way For The Corona Virus

Around early February the virus warnings were beginning to grow and I’d just found out that my flight (originally booked for March 4th) had been cancelled. This put me in a tough spot to either make some changes to a large portion of my trip with the gamble of how Japan would handle the virus or cancel the trip completely, bunker down in the US, and potentially stay safe from the virus. The news was all negative at this point and pretty much all my friends and acquaintances questioned why I’d go to an Asian country during this potential pandemic. Regardless of all the noise, I came to the conclusion that this was either go time or it may never happen. I looked into re-booking my flight and actually found a super affordable flight from my local small-town airport! This meant I didn’t need to drop the extra $37 (one way) for the airport bus to San Francisco (SFO) and could just get dropped off 7 minutes from my house and literally walk onto the airplane within minutes. My new flight was Santa Rosa (STS) -> Los Angeles (LAX) -> Tokyo (NRA).   It’d be about 1.5 hours to LA and then a solid 12 hours to Tokyo.  Little did I know that that was my first win of many to come. 

After analyzing my trip a little more thoroughly, I realized that hotel prices had dropped over 50% during the scare of the corona virus.  This presented an opportunity for me to cancel all my previously booked hotels and re-book the same hotels for half the price! My second win!

My first loss was the fact that many of the museums and some places that I’d originally hoped to visit would be closed but that’s a small sacrifice for what was shaping up to be the trip of a lifetime.

The high school boys were playing better and better as the season came to a close and let alone making playoffs, we actually qualified for state.  This would mean a game on March 3rd, March 5th, and possibly finals on the 7th.  My new flight was set to takeoff on March 3rd from Santa Rosa and changing it at this point would complicate several newly planned scenarios (and risk the trip not happening).  To add even more hesitation, my friends and family were starting to question me more and more about my decision to go as corona virus news and cases mounted.  I think my eldest brother Braden was the wind in my sails as the person that 100% backed me going and didn’t question my abilities to manage the issues or dangers associated (I can always count on him!).  In fact, he even helped me out with some extra travel money and words of encouragement over dinner. I’m super grateful and forever in debt for his support as I was able to get out of the US before the “mandatory lock-downs” started.

I found myself in a tough spot rooting for the boys to keep playing their asses off but also feared all the feelings and regret I’d have to endure leaving them at the start of this historic run. I ended up leaving them a heartfelt note on my day of departure to show my support even though I’d only be there in spirit. *They won their first round but lost in the state semifinals.

Again, as I begin the actual description of my trip, it’s important to note that this trip occurred during the corona virus pandemic which allowed me to experience and see things that would otherwise be much more difficult or maybe even impossible.

Anyhow, enough banter, you’ve got plenty to read about in the blog.

Enjoy ^-^