Japan 2010: 0.3 - A Place to Rest my Bones

Now that I have a pretty firm idea of where to go on my Japanese jaunt, its time to start setting things in stone. Chiefly, this means getting a bed for the 21 nights around Japan. With the exception of K's Backpack Hostel at Mt. Fuji, 2008's trip was completely open-ended with no hotels pre-booked - not even the one on the first night. Thankfully, due to some good fortune and the boundless energy the Japanese have in helping strangers, I managed to sort myself accommodation all the way round, sometimes at very short notice and with people not often put in contact with rambling, swaying foreign backpackers.

Nevertheless, even though it turned out okay in the end, I would have much preferred not to have spent the first half of every third day or so sat in the local JTB looking lost and needy and using my hands to convey most of my wishes to bemused staff and a curious and politely impatient crowd of people behind me. It is for these reasons and more that I am taking steps to get most of it out of the way before stepping off these shores.

Of course, the first thing you need is a concrete list of where you're going (to the granularity of a town/city) and which days you'll be there. Then it is a case of contacting the places you want to stay in. One way is - by trial and error - do the 'Search Nearby' option on Google Maps, which often brings up a few dozen registered places around any given city, although you are restricted to those that accept overseas bookings, and of course, speak the language. There's also the whole security issue of typing in your bank details over and over, which is obviously off-putting, especially as the other end of the wire is so far away.

A better option is to find a site that specialises in this sort of thing. Some are well-known, like hotels.com, but others you'll only find after a bit of searching. Two that I have found of particular use are hostelworld.com, which as the name suggests, specialise in hostel accommodation for places around the world (although the do have some hotels too), and the Welcome Inn Reservation Centre, which is specific to accommodation in Japan, and covers all kinds of accommodation.

With HostelWorld, you pay only an upfront deposit for the stay - often 10% - (plus a charge that goes into the site's coffers), so you still need to fork out on the day. Welcome Inn on the other hand will charge the full amount up front (although without an on-top fee), which is generally preferable because then you don't need to worry about credit card compatibility or getting hold of cash over there. What is most important, of course, is that you get your reservation in plenty of time, in the comfort of your living room rather than legging it to the travel shop at silly o'clock in the morning when you're there.

At the moment, about 50% of places are booked, and a nights stay in each place varies between about 2000 and 6000 yen (around £14 - 43). Hotels are typically the most expensive, and hostels where you share the room with a few others tend to be the cheapest. That's not to put hostels down of course, my stay at K's last time (the only hostel I stayed in) was by far the best of the bunch, because everyone there was a buzzing, interesting, exciting crowd, eager to share and listen to the stories they had been a part of on their journey.

I'm aiming to spend a good portion of the holiday in hostels, plus some of it in hotels (having your own lav is a much missed luxury after a while in the company of strangers), some Ryokan (traditional Japanese guest houses), 'pension' hotels (basically a westernised Ryokan), and the infamous 'Capsules'..

As the man says, when in Tokyo..

Update: It wouldn't be fair if I didn't also include the Rakuten Travel website on my list of places to book hotels in Japan (and various other far eastern destinations too). They have a much larger list of participating hotels than HostelWorld or even ITCJ and have the ability to do online availability checks without logging in or submitting an accommodation request (which ITCJ doesn't). The only problem with them is that you dont have an online account with them as such, so you need to type in your details for each booking, which can be either inconvenient or insecure, depending on your circumstances.

Short Film Digest 2

Time for another trio of short films, taken from those that made me smile at the various festivals through the years. Please let me know if any of the video links go to crap.

2.1 The Tube with a Hat

A lovely, slow burning film that took me back to the days when technology was simple enough to allow your dad to unscrew the back off whatever item was faulty, and armed with a bit of electronics knowledge, a hundred pull-out plastic drawers full of spare parts, and a soldering iron, he could get anything going again.

2.2 FARD

FARD really impressed me, the boxy, angular feel of the computer graphics give way to a very clever blending of animated and live action, wrapped up in a Matrix-style conspiracy of consciousness.

2.3 Skhizein

In a very French style, Skhizein tells the story of a poor, ordinary man who, thanks to being blatted with a meteorite, is always 91cm away from where he should be.

I'll have a dig around for some more soon.

Japan 2010: 0.2 - Taking to the Air

One of my TODO's for this trip to Japan, based on my conclusion to 2008's jaunt, was to design it a bit better; chiefly, make it more.. relaxed. Not attempting to travel hundreds of miles by train each day like in the first few days of the last trip.

This has a downside. My intended route is much more frugal in terms of scope this time; I have tried to reduce the journey time by train in any one day to 4 hours or less, meaning the distance travelled is much less. Only Okinawa and Kyushu, two relatively small portions of Japan actually are going to receive much attention. Perhaps two thirds of the total number of places I went to before are going to be visited this time.

In order to minimise the impact of this, I have booked myself some internal flights. This allows me to fly down from Tokyo direct to Okinawa, which cuts out several days travel if I was to get to Kyushu by train, and then a whole extra day or so by the limited ferries that serve the various islands. On the return leg, I will fly out to Kagoshima on the southern coast of Kyushu, and then slowly work my way back to Tokyo from there (some would ask why I didn't get an international flight direct to a more southern city, but I would respond in a quiet and dignified voice by saying that I never thought to do so).

Buying domestic Japanese flights as a foreigner has a similar set of offers attached to it. The almost obligatory Japan Rail Pass, allowing unlimited JR Line journeys for 1-3 weeks, has airline equivalents. Typically a traveller can book flights for a flat rate of between 10,000 and 13,000 yen per flight (£75-£100), depending on a couple of factors which vary slightly between carriers:
  • You need to book the tickets in advance before leaving your native country.
  • You usually need to book at least 2 flights and usually not more than 5. (A connecting flight will count as 2, and will be charged as such)
  • You need to provide proof of residency (scans of passports, utility bills, e-ticket)
  • You can't reschedule your first flight, and the others will be difficult to change, so ensure your dates are right.
  • There are a couple of other charges, such as a small consumption tax, and probably ticket charges (adds about £20ish to the total)
Several carriers, including JAL and ANA (the two main ones) offer this service, and the rates above result in a roughly 60% saving over the normal cost, so it's certainly worth jumping through a few hoops to get it sorted this way.

I got my tickets with ANA, because they had flights going to the places I wanted; if you can, some of the smaller companies (a good guide is here) will offer tickets at the lower end of the scale, but might not go where you need to be, so shop around.

Lastly, if you choose your international flights wisely, (I didn't), you might be able to get extra discounts. For instance, the JAL fares would drop to 10,000 yen if I had gone with any of the carriers in the oneworld group of airlines.