TripAdvisor of course, but also…

Trip Advisor's Japan Forum is a great place to search for tips and ask for advice: www.tripadvisor.com/ForumHome.  

If a TripAdvisor review is in Japanese, translate it with Google translate.  Another, more accurate option is the translate tool in Microsoft Word from 2007 edition up.  Shop staff use http://www.excite.co.jp/world/english/  for English translation to and from Japanese.  The centre buttons are to toggle between Eng/Jpn and Jpn/Eng, and you copy and paste into the left window then hit your button for the translation to appear in the right window. 

Most prefectures, cities, and towns have at least some information in English; so if you have a specific location in mind, do a Web search for that place and see what information they have to offer.  Some are better than others, but you will find some wonderful information in this way.  Remember that local websites in Japan end with co.jp and don’t forget to have Japanese languages (kanji, hiragana and katakana) enabled on your computer. 

The Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) has a lot of great information, including a listing of festivals and events: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/

Know what the front of your Ryokan looks like before you get there with Google Streeetview http://maps.google.com.au/help/maps/s... , and browse your virtual globe and get a whole lot more local information after installing Google Earth http://earth.google.com/download-eart... 

Know where it is in relation to somewhere else.  Locate (English – romaji) addresses in Japan  http://www.diddlefinger.com/ 

Another very useful resource written by travellers, and getting bigger all the time, is WikiTravel… http://wikitravel.org/en/Japan

Get advice from expatriates living in Japan http://www.gaijinpot.com/

Get ideas about an active holiday at http://outdoorjapan.com/  See their onsen section. 

 

Accommodation

Once again, TripAdvisor accommodation reviews are invaluable when making the decision where to stay.  Nothing beats the impartiality of travellers themselves.  However, beware of serial complainers. 

JNTO is also a good place to visit, being updated and expanded all the time.  In addition, some locally-run websites with English language are worth a look because they have better coverage, and are likely to list lodgings in more obscure and out-of-the-way places.  For example… http://travel.rakuten.co.jp/en/

Others… http://www.toyoko-inn.com/eng/   http://www.ntainbound.com/  http://www.jyh.or.jp/english/index.html  http://www.japanaccommodation.net/ 

Want to stay longer, in self-contained accommodation? Try http://www.wmt.co.jp/en/  …or even longer? Do a home exchange.  For example… http://homeexchange.jp/index.php#

 

Transportation

Japan's rail network is extensive with the Metro subway (underground city commuter trains), JR lines (aboveground commuter trains), and high speed Shinkansen bullet trains (intercity trains).

If you are interested in the famous Japan Rail Pass, it must be bought before you arrive in Japan, and will commence on the day you choose to validate it at a station.  http://www.japanrailpass.net/ However, keep in mind these don't cover the faster Shinkansen bullet trains.

The Tokyo Metro (subway system)

The Tokyo subway is an incredibly clever system. You can navigate your way around all areas of the city quite quickly once you get a handle on the way the system works.

Subway stations have a red symbol at street level that looks like a rounded M, often at the top of a set of stairs going down to the subway. Avoiding peak hour means there will be less likelihood of being physically squashed onto a train. There are some optional separate cars for women. There was some issue in the past (while rare) with males being pushed up against females on the crowded trains. Draw your own conclusions. You can see where to stand for these cars, marked on the floor of the platform while waiting for your train.

Each metro train line has a name, a colour and a station number. So while you are on the train, you can count your stops easily even if you are struggling to read Japanese. There are electronic signs on the more modern trains (above the train doors on the inside) that show which station is next, so you can track where you are on your journey. Although the name and colour of the line never changes, the same station can have a different station number depending on the train line that impassion through it. Sounds complicated, but it makes sense when you look at the subway map http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/subwaymap...http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/subwaymap/

You can purchase PASMO or SUICA cards at the ticket vending machines at the stations that you can top up. Much easier than buying individual tickets each time, and you can use them for food vending machines.

The JR system

The JR system is the local above ground train line. There are some great ones like the Yamamote line that circle the heart of the city. These trains have separate station entrances to the metro - don't get confused! They have a green JR sign and a completely different network to the inner city metro with lines that include the outskirts of the city. http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/info/map_a4... SUICA or PASMO cards can be used for these journeys.

The Shinkansen

The Shinkansen are the equivalent of country trains or intercity trains. Sometimes bullet trains, sometimes not. Pretty exciting to watch the really fast bullet trains zoom passed when you are on the platform. They nearly take your breath away. Currently at their fastest, they can travel anywhere between 100 km/h to 320 km/h, but Japan is now working on a faster Maglev train pushing 600km/h between Tokyo and Osaka. Yahoo!

If only the fastest train will do, you want to arrange your own tickets without the JR pass, and you want designated seating, there are a few things to know. The first thing is the tickets for the Shinkansen can only be booked exactly 1 month before your scheduled train trip. And they can only be purchased within Japan unless you have insider connections. If you have booked your hotel accommodation, some concierge may purchase the tickets for you in advance of your arrival if you pay a handling fee. Definitely worth it to know you have the tickets and reserved seating on the train if that's what you require.

Although the Shinkansen trains have a designated area of Tokyo station, allow yourself plenty of time to work out where your platform is, particularly if you have luggage. There are plenty of nice places to eat at the station if you arrive a tad early. The upcoming trains are listed on electronic signs above eye level as you walk through the station. Don't be afraid to ask for assistance at the information areas, the staff are pleasant and happy to assist.

Traveling multiple sectors on Shinkansen

If you are traveling multiple sectors on Shinkansen, there are some things you should know in advance. I will use an example of traveling from Iiyama in the North to Kyoto. Such a trip may require two train changes. Get ready for the tricky part...

When you enter the platforms through the electronic turnstile machines, you need to insert the complete journey ticket ON TOP OF the sector ticket. Yes, that's right! Put both in the slot together. The tickets pop out at the other end of the machine. Collect them as you walk through. Then when you arrive at your first sector destination and are transferring to the next sector train, you put in three tickets (complete journey ticket, the sector you've just completed, and the next sector all on top of each other). Only two tickets will come out the other end (complete journey ticket and next sector ticket).

If you have a child traveling with you (under 12 years), they have a little black kanji symbol on their ticket. Make sure these child tickets are entered into the turnstile together, not mixed up with adult tickets otherwise you won't pass through.

Toilets and drink machines are plentiful in the train stations. You can get warm or cold drinks in a can from vending machines, and even hot corn chowder in a can (nice than it sounds). you can use your Pasmo card for the vending machine. Toilet seats are warm and generally clean, but the water for hand washing is always cold in Japan, oddly.

A good travel research site is Hyperdia: www.hyperdia.com. Note that there is an additional charge for reserved seating. Also, Hyperdia only gives you 10 minutes between trains on their suggested schedules. If you are catching multiple trains, have children, lots of luggage or generally don't want to be rushing, you might want schedule more time to relax between sectors.

Travel Guides - Country, Region or City

Certainly devour any Travel Guide for the region you are planning to visit. You will always find some nugget of useful information. The layout and content will vary with the publisher.

  •  Lonely Planet
  •  Rough Guides
  •  DK Eyewitness Travel
  •  Insight / Discovery Channel Travel
  •  AA Explorer, AA Key or AA Spiral

Culture Guides

Want to visit, join in, meet and greet new friends but not offend?  Unsure what side of your yukata should be on the outside? 

Culture Wise Japan – The Essential Guide to Culture, Customs and Business Etiquette.  Edited by David Leaper.  Website www.survivalbooks.net

Culture Smart Japan – The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture.  By Paul Norbury.  Website www.culturesmartguides.com

Travel Books - Children or Junior

Browse the children's or junior section of your local library for travel and geography guides. You will find a variety of guides to countries, regions or natural wonders of the world. The majority of these guides will be less than fifty pages in length. They will contain an excellent overview of a country etc. They are an excellent introduction for the young traveller.

Travel DVD or Audio/Video  

These are a few ideas for finding Travel DVD's in your local area.

  • Local Video Rental Store
  • Local Library - Travel Video or DVD
  • Any large music store will have a range of travel DVD's or Video's on sale.
  • Travel Video Store has an excellent internet site.
  • BBC Video series website section
  • Pilot Travel Guide series 
  • National  Geographic Travel DVD or Video Series
  • Escorted Tour Companies  DVD or Video's  e.g. Rick Steves' 

National Tourist Bureaus MAY have a introduction Video or DVD on offer  or Photo Gallery on their Internet site

Travel Pictorial - Country or Natural Wonder

Always browse any or all Travel Pictorial books about a country, region or a natural wonder of the world. You will find excellent photography to view at leisure. Check out any bookstore or library (lending or reference).