Note: This article was first published on 12 April 2016 and is being republished now because the tips here are all still relevant. Some sections have been updated to make the article more timely.
A techie's guide to catching cherry blossoms in Japan
Spring is a special time in Japan because it marks the blossoming of cherry blossoms across the country. Widely regarded as the unofficial national flower of Japan (Japan does not have an official national flower), the blooming of cherry blossoms in Japan is also seen as a sign of the coming of spring.
During this period, many Japanese flock to gardens around the country to partake in the practice of “hanami”, which translates to flower viewing. But more accurately, it refers to picnics and parties in the parks under cherry blossom trees. And it is not only the Japanese that are caught up in cherry blossom fever. In fact, many tourists from around the world visit Japan during this season to soak up in the festive atmosphere and also to enjoy the breathtaking sights of cherry blossoms in full bloom.
I recently made a trip to Japan to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom and here are some things that I learned from my trip. If you are heading out to Japan soon, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your trip.
1. Research, research, research!
As the saying goes, "if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail", so do some research before your trip. If you fail to prepare properly, you might end up making trips to places and missing out on important things to see. For those on "free and easy" trips and have to plan your own itineraries, research and planning your day's activities and route is paramount to ensuring that you make the most out of your time in Japan. The great thing is that there are plenty of good websites to use to plan your trips. Here are three of my favorite sites.
Japan Guide is great for a few reasons. First of all, it’s really extensive and covers the entirety of Japan, from smaller cities like Nara and Hakone to larger cities like Osaka and Tokyo. Secondly, it’s also extremely easy to navigate and use. Thirdly, it has a good write-up of each region, city and attraction, which includes its history, directions, fees and also places that are worth visiting. All in all, Japan Guide is a great starting point for researching on your trip.
If you are visiting Japan for the first time, chances are you’ll be traveling around the country and visiting other regions and cities, and for that, you’ll probably be getting a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). Though costly, the Japan Rail Pass can pay for itself if you are traveling across Japan to multiple cities. Plus, the JR Pass can also be used within cities themselves too on local JR lines and buses. JPRail will explain how Japan’s train and subway system work, how to use the JR Pass, and also tell you how to get to popular attractions around Japan using your JR Pass. The site also suggests itineraries that use the JR Pass so that you can maximize your JRPass and time in Japan.
Trains are arguably the most convenient mode of transport for visitors in Japan. However, the train network in Japan can be complicated. Likewise, train stations in Japan are equally massive. Coupled with the foreign language, what this all means is that it can be difficult to understand the train schedules and where to board the train.
Hyperdia is practically a bible for any visitor in Japan as it can suggest train schedules for you, tell you how much it will cost, also tell you how long your journey will take, and also when and where the train will arrive at the station. For JR Pass owners, you can even restrict the results to show only trains that are eligible for JR Pass holders.
2. Have Internet Access
Traveling abroad on your own can be daunting and confusing, but this problem can be alleviated if you had the Internet at your finger tips. Not sure of anything? Just Google it up. Can’t tell where you are now? Just launch Google Maps. What train should I take to head to my next destination? Go to Hyperdia. It’s really much easier traveling with always-on Internet access and not having to rely on free public or hotel Wi-Fi. Plus, you also get to stay connected with your family and friends back home.
Although data-only pre-paid SIM cards can be purchased easily in Japan, I decided to give Changi Recommends’ overseas Wi-Fi router rental service a shot. Though more costly than buying a pre-paid SIM card, a portable Wi-Fi router lets you share a data connection with multiple devices. So if you are traveling in a group, it could pay itself off.
In addition, renting a portable Wi-Fi router from Changi Recommends also means that you do not need to worry about getting a SIM card and data plan the moment you land in Japan. You simply pick up the router before your flight at the Changi Recommends counter at Changi Airport and you are good to go. Returning is easy too, simply return at any Changi Recommends counter at any of the terminals when you arrive back in Singapore.
For Japan, Changi Recommends’ is providing a Pocket WiFi 303ZT portable Wi-Fi router which allows for a maximum of 10 simultaneous users (great for families) and a maximum data transfer rate of 187.5Mbps (depending on network coverage). Performance was good and battery life was also impressive as I managed to get around 8 to 10 hours out of the tiny unit.
Apart from Japan, Changi Recommends also provides routers to other places like the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and many more. Head over to Changi Recommends to rent a router for your trip.
Note: On my last trip to Japan in February 2017, I was given a Huawei Softbank Pocket WiFi 501HW router. I have no complaints about performance, but I noticed that battery life was considerably better than the Pocket WiFi 303ZT portable Wi-Fi router that I got on my previous trip (March 2016) and could easily last 10 hours or more. In addition, at the time of writing, Changi Recommends has a promotion for router rentals in Japan at only $5 a day. Considering that it offers unlimited data usage, it can be the more savvy option even if you are traveling in smaller groups.
3. Travel light and smart
Traveling light is important because you would be doing a lot of walking in Japan and you don’t want to be encumbered by heavy gadgets. As I mentioned earlier, the major train stations are massive and you should be prepared to cover lots of ground as you make your way from one platform to the next. And if you are into history, you would find that the castle grounds are vast and there are many stairs to climb within the compound if you wish to make your way to the top of the castle tower. For more casual travelers, the large cities like Tokyo and Osaka are a visual assault on the senses and there's so much to see, buy and also eat, so again, be prepared to walk.
While a couple of grams here and there don’t sound like much, it all adds up especially if you intend to bring along multiple devices like a notebook, tablet or camera. Thanks to advances in computing, notebooks have never been smaller and more compact. And while my top picks would be LG's ridiculously light Gram 15 or Dell’s awesome XPS 13 or Apple’s amazingly light new MacBook, I was quite happy trotting about with my own 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
The Dell XPS 13 is an amazingly compact 13-inch notebook. Built with premium materials such as carbon fiber and aluminum, the XPS 13 is substantially smaller than most other 13-inch notebooks and even rivals Apple’s smaller 11-inch MacBook Air, which is pretty nuts in my books.
The LG Gram 15 is an engineering marvel. Despite sporting a Full-HD 15-inch IPS display and a full-size keyboard with number pad, the Gram 15 weighs just 980g - that's less than a kilogram! It is also fairly thin too, which means that it is easily one of the most portable 15-inch notebooks you can find.
For readers who insist on using OS X, the MacBook is Apple’s most compact notebook. It measures just 13.2mm thick at its thickest point and weighs a scant 920g. Yet, it still packs a Retina Display and it has enough computing firepower for tasks like web browsing, email, word processing and even light photo and video editing. The only problem is its lack of ports, which necessitates the use of some sort of USB adapter.
That said, if you don’t need a machine to catch up on work, my personal recommendation would be to travel with just a tablet. Apple’s range of iPad tablets are wonderfully suited for the job. They are powerful and have large enough displays so that you can be comfortably surfing the web on your hotel bed and researching on the next day’s activities without having to strain your eyes. Plus, thanks to the iPad’s Wi-Fi sharing capabilities and long battery life, the cellular versions of the iPads can also double up as portable Wi-Fi routers. Talk about killing two birds with one stone. I would recommend the Apple iPad Mini 4.
4. Take a camera along
Japan is an immensely varied country with lots of beautiful sights and scenery. In Tokyo, you have a super modern metropolis with skyscrapers and buildings that stretch out to the horizon; while in Kyoto, you can find countless temples, shrines and gardens. It is truly remarkable and the sights in Japan will make you want to take lots of photos even if you aren’t big on photography.
My camera of choice for my trip was the Fujifilm XT-10, which also happens to be the winner of our Tech Award 2016 Best Mid-range Interchangeable Lens Camera category. It’s not the most compact or lightest camera to bring along, but it’s loads of fun to shoot with and it gives really nice photos right out of the box. The photos above were shot with a Fujifilm XT-10.
For camera shooting techniques and important lessons in framing the right shot, you'll also find our award winning article on Travel Photography: In search of old Japan an invaluable source of inspiration.
Of course, that’s not to say that you cannot take photos with your smartphone. Smartphones today are very capable shooters and I also managed to grab a couple of nice shots with my iPhone 6s - the little brother of the iPhone 6s Plus, winner of our Tech Awards 2016 Best Camera Smartphone category. The photos above were shot with an iPhone 6s.
You've far less variables to dabble with when shooting with just your smartphone, but even then, there are techniques and framing considerations to get a great shot and my colleague has great advice in his Travel Photography: Craftsmanship in South Korea article that was pieced together with only a smartphone.
And if you are set on traveling with nothing but your smartphone, here's what you should pack to get the most out of it.
5. Check out our forums!
Japan is easily one of Singaporean’s most favorite holiday destinations. It’s just seven hours away, which isn’t short, but certainly not as long as a flight to the United States or Europe. Plus, it’s safe and the food is great. As a result, is it any wonder that the Japan sub-forum is one of the most active forums in our community?
If you are going on your own, a great place to start is the “Japan Sample Itinerary thread” where members have shared itineraries for their own trips. And if you want to get the best deal on exchanging Japanese yen, be sure to follow the “Yen Exchange Rate Watch” thread. Want to find out how you can get great views of Japan's iconic Mount Fuji, be sure to hit up the "Mount Fuji" thread where there are tantalizing photos from our members too. But if you have more specific questions or discussions, you can always just start a new thread and ask away. Not a member yet? Registration is free and you get a wealth of knowledge from Singapore's most active community.
Here are some other great threads that I would recommend anyone heading to Japan to have a look.
- Compilation of useful websites (Japan)
- How much you will need to bring for a trip to Japan
- Compilation of Trip Reports
I hope these tips that I've shared will help you get the most out of your trip to Japan. But above all, remember that you are on holiday and that even the finest plans can sometimes go awry due to unforeseen circumstances. So my final and bonus tip is to just go with the flow and enjoy the cherry blossoms and your time in Japan.
P.S. If you have any comments or questions about visiting Japan, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.