Sunday, October 7, 2012

Traveling Solo - Japan (1)

How can you say 'no' to this?  Kiyomizu Temple at night
Picture borrowed from GOTrip HK.
Unfortunately, I am going a little too early for the fall foliage... :'(
I found and bought a discounted plane ticket last month from Peach Aviation and I am off to Japan on an 9-day trip in less than 2 weeks!  The last time I was in Japan was over 10 years ago where I visited the Kanto region.  So, if you can't tell already, I am super excited - not only it's my first time going to the Kansai region, it's also the first time I am traveling solo for more than a week :)

You might ask, why go alone?

Well, I have been drafting an itinerary to Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe with a friend earlier but didn't work out due to schedule conflicts.  Nevertheless, the rich history, beautiful countryside, and amazing food continued to seduce me.  Thus when I saw a 48-hour sale via GOtrip HK, I had a spur of the moment and bought the ticket faster than I could spell Mississippi.  I am a notorious traveler when it comes to visiting a place I have never been.  I wake up super early and I like to jam pack my day with activities.  I could spend hours walking in the countryside and days submerging myself in history.  It's the only time I could forgo food (or eat energy bar) for the opportunity to see more.  As most of my friends do not share my travel style, it would be a torture to all of us if we try to travel together.

With nobody but myself to please, I drafted my itinerary and had lots of fun in the process.  Planning a trip could seem a daunting task if you don't know where to start.  Thus I am sharing my itinerary (see individual posts which I will be posting and updating after my trip with pictures), tips and useful websites to help you plan your trip.

Am I going to follow my draft to a tee?  No, but I always like to have a plan and a backup plan.  The best part of a trip to me is the planning process, whether or not the plan is executed as planned is secondary.  (It's like playing Lego.)  One of my bosses used to say the success in anything lies in planning.  His success formula is something like 70% planning, 10% luck, and 20% execution.  I concurred.

So here's what I normally do when I plan for a trip:

1. Bullet point the places you want to visit to estimate the length of your trip. Based on my experience, 2-3 points of interest (POI) are max per day.  It's also helpful to locate these places on Google Map so you can bunch them in groups.

2. Start looking for good deal on airfares.  If you are planning to visit more than one city or country, see if it will make more sense to fly multiple destinations.  Sometimes, it's cheaper to buy airfare + hotel packages but you will have less flexibility.

3. Once your airfare is confirmed, start reading travel blogs, forum, and websites in detail.  Prioritize your POIs.  You can't go to everything.

My top resources:  
背包客棧  (Sorry, it's Chinese only)

For this Japan trip, there are a few blogs I find myself keep going back to... Unfortunately, they are all in Chinese.  

And finally, there is Tabelog, a Japanese version of Yelp x Urbanspoon.  Unfortunately, this website is only in Japanese.  (but there is always Google Translate...)

4. If availability is an issue or if there is a very specific place you want to stay, book your accommodation as soon as you confirmed your airfare.  Otherwise, make your reservations after you have an itinerary so you can stay closer to the places your will be visiting.  The time and money you saved on transportation is always worth it.

(If you are feeling a little adventurous or didn't want to stay at a hotel, look at vacation rentals too.  I found a great deal when I visited Perth last year.

5. Post your draft itinerary on forums for feedback and tips.  If you show that you did your homework and is courteous, you will always find somebody willing to help.

I received great feedback on routing, transportation deals, accommodation deals, and other tips such as best time to visit, festivals, structural repairs on major tourist attractions, restaurant recommendations, etc.

Note: I don't use Couchsurfing to find accommodation.  I am personally uncomfortable with the idea and always prefer to stay at hotels or hostels.  However, I have received helpful travel tips from users there.

6. Take note on the opening hours and special deals running at the places you wanted to visit.

For example, most temples in Kyoto closes at 5pm, as are the vineyards in Margaret River.  Museum weeks in Chicago where admission is free on specific days. Internet special pricing, free admission for visitors who are wearing something white, a kimono, etc.  These are the things you won't know unless you did your homework.

7. Fine tune your plan and make necessary adjustments and reservations.

I like to research on potential transportation deals (day pass, value tickets, bundles, etc.) after I confirmed my itinerary so I am not going to places only because there is a deal.  This is especially useful when you are traveling in countries where tourists and public transportation is prominent, e.g. Kyoto.

8. Don't always believe what the travel guides tells you on restaurants (or specialty shops).

Instead of visiting restaurants recommended by travel guides, I prefer to follow my nose or word of mouth.  I'd still research and get a general idea of the popular places along my route but I have stopped going out of my way.

9. Be flexible and have fun!

The reason why you are not in a packaged tour is because you wanted the autonomy to come and go as you please!  Plan all you want but feel free (and be prepared) to toss it all away when necessary.

10. Use your common sense.

When a deal is too good to be true, it probably is.  Make your safety your top priority.  Be silly and have a good time but don't do something you will regret.

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