How to Plan an International Trip (Japan)

Planning an international trip can seem daunting at times, especially if you have never done it before.  There are so many things to think about like currency, language, transportation, activities, passports, flights, hotels, and food.  Japan was the first international vacation we’ve planned, and while it was challenging to put together, we found it was a fun and successful trip.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

The Planning Process

Timing  – The first thing we had to do after deciding on Japan was figure out what time of year was best to visit.  In Japan, you can go any time, but chances are you want to choose between the obvious favorites of spring cherry blossom season or autumn colors.  Luckily, we live in a place in the U.S. that has cherry blossoms (and this felt a bit too cliche), so we opted to go see Japan in its fall beauty.  We looked into when fall colors were at their prime, and we chose to go the first couple weeks of November.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Locations – With the initial goal of autumn colors, we found that Kyoto was a must.  It is full of very beautifully landscaped shrines and temples rich with history and traditional Japanese culture.  The second location that was important to us was Tokyo, inspired by countless anime (of which we’re avid fans) and tales from others who have visited.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Activities – Once the locations were determined, we then looked into the fun activities each have to offer.  With simple google searches, we found many travel bloggers who had great advice on the best things to see and do, as well as some off-the-beaten-path ideas that weren’t as touristy.  These are some of the prime activities we chose (warning: we vacation hard):

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Tokyo:  Studio Ghibli Museum, cat cafes, Ueno Park, Kaneiji Shrine, Meiji Shrine, Sensou-ji Shrine, Robot Restaurant, Tokyo Metro Government Building, bike tour, Oedou Onsen Monogatari, and even a Yakatabune dinner cruise.  The possibilities are endless here.  Just walk around, take in the sites, and stumble into a bookstore to see something new.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Yokohama (near Tokyo):  Yokohama Landmark Tower, Cup Noodle Museum, Red Brick Warehouse, Onabashi Pier, Yamashita Park, and Chinatown.  Stop by the giant Ferris wheel to get a grand view of the city.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Kyoto:  Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Monkey Park Iwatayama, Philosopher’s Walk, Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Nanzen Ji Temple, and too many other amazing temples and shrines to list.  Get to these places early before they are overrun with tourists.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Osaka (near Kyoto):  The primary activity for us was food.  Okonomiyaki and taiyaki are both Osaka specialties.  We were fortunately able to meet a friend there, but we weren’t able to stay as long as we would have liked.  Next time!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Lodging – It was important for us to find lodging near transportation and activities while in Tokyo, which wasn’t difficult.  Kyoto was a different story, as it was our goal to experience a traditional Japanese ryokan.  We wound up farther from train lines, but many choice sites were within walking distance.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Flights – Choosing the best flight is a balance of price and travel time.  In our case, we chose to fly Air Canada through Vancouver B.C. to Tokyo.  The flight times were reasonable, but we also had to think about our arrival time to make sure it wasn’t too late.  We left at 10:00am and arrived at 3:30pm the next day, which got us checked into our hotel at a reasonable hour.  On the way back we left at 7:00pm and arrived the same day in Portland at 3:30pm (gonna go back – in – time!).  Crossing the international dateline will leave you with some killer jet lag.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Getting around – If you plan to wander around Japan a lot, a JR pass comes in handy (unless you’re visiting the countryside, cars aren’t practical).  It allows you to ride the high speed Shinkansen from city to city and helps you get around Tokyo easily without having to pay a fare each time.  It is expensive, so weigh it against your travel plans to see if you come out ahead or are better off just buying single-use tickets.  You will need to make reservations for the longer trips – such as Tokyo to Kyoto – so do so in advance.

It may seem overwhelming, but if you take it one activity at a time, you’ll quickly have an amazing trip planned.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Now it’s your turn.  How do you tackle a trip overseas?  Please let us know about your own planning experiences in the comments!

2 thoughts on “How to Plan an International Trip (Japan)

  1. Wow, that’s a big question! We fortunately had two weeks to fill with amazing activities. It also really depends on what kinds of things you’re interested in doing. We’re serious, hard-core vacationers, so we try to pack as much in as possible (there’s far more to do than you’d ever fit into a single trip, no matter how long). This post lists several suggestions. I loved the beauty of Kyoto and the hustle-bustle of Tokyo. The onsen (actually a sentou) in Odaiba was certainly a highlight, and the Robot Restaurant was fun for a kitschy, touristy evening. Cat cafes were a must, and as cheesy as they sound, we actually had a lot of fun at the maid cafe we visited. The ryokan in Kyoto was WELL worth the premium price (and the food is to die for – book well in advance). And if you find yourself in Asakusa, make a point to stop by Komakata Dozeu for lunch – a truly remarkable culinary experience that you’d never ordinarily stumble upon as a tourist.

    I recommend checking out my full recounting of our trip here:

    I’m happy to answer any other questions you have, and I’d love to hear about your own experiences in Japan!


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