This year I turn 30 (October 17th) and whilst I'm at a stage in my life where I'm happy with my lot and therefore don't think this birthday is a life shattering big deal I still want to mark the occasion. In traditional hansyhobs spirit I'm planning a holiday, but not just any old long weekend trip like previous birthday visits to San Sebastián, Edinburgh and Berlin. No, this time I'm planning a massive 3 week long travelling adventure around Japan and South Korea and I am so excited I want to squeal every time I think about it.
But the point of this post is not a big reveal, in fact I've been talking non-stop about this trip over on Twitter for quite some time. The point of this post is for me to discuss how I plan for such a big holiday because quite honestly I enjoy the planning process nearly as much as the holiday itself.
I've wanted to visit Japan for as long as I can remember but for whatever reasons I never booked a trip. About 2 years ago I decided that 2016 would be the year I travel to the far east so I sat patiently until mid 2015 when I knew it was time to start making plans.
Before booking flights Steve and I first had to decide how much time we wanted to take off work. My job is pretty relaxed with how many days annual leave I take but Steve has to ask for special permission for anything over 2 weeks. I knew 2 weeks wouldn't be enough to visit all the cities I had in mind but I also didn't want to spend my entire 6 week allowance on one trip because a. Japan is expensive and b. as if I could go a whole year with only one holiday. After a little research I decided that three weeks seemed like a reasonable amount of time. I knew I wanted to be in Tokyo for my birthday which meant we would leave London on Friday 14th October. Work agreed to the time off so the next thing to do was book flights.
Flights for long distance trips usually come on sale one year in advance so towards the end of 2015 I started looking to see what flights might be available and how much they were likely to cost. Having only 3 weeks to visit a huge country I knew I wanted to maximise our time on holiday and therefore fly direct, not wasting a single moment with transfers. British Airways was our best bet and come their January sales we booked ourself tickets to fly from London to Tokyo and back home via Seoul. Strangely it was actually cheaper by £50 each to book this multi city trip then it would have been to book London - Tokyo - London. Our return flights cost about £630 each which I know is a lot of money but let's be honest, 11.5 hours on a BA flight is never going to be cheap. We'll be arriving into Tokyo at 7am on a Saturday which means we have zero time for jet lag and the sight seeing will commence immediately.
With our flights booked it was time to start making an itinerary and this is something that still requires work. I've made myself a table in Excel where each column represents one day and each row represents travel arrangements, accommodation details and daytime / evening plans. If this sounds complicated, trust me when I say it isn't. When you're planning on visiting several different places it's really helpful to create some sort of system to help you visualise and remember where you'll be each day and what you intend on doing.
To help with my planning I bought myself a Japan guide book. I only buy Lonely Planet guides as I've been using them for years and am very familiar with their style and formatting. Plus the matching blue spines look great lined up on my bookcase. The Lonely Planet Japan guide is a pretty hefty beast but it's packed full of sightseeing tips, accommodation recommendations and sample itineraries. I like to look at the proposed itineraries and top destination list as they normally give you an idea on key places to visit. With these tips in mind it was time to starting reading and marking places with my trusty yellow highlighter. FYI this is how I plan every holiday I go on, reading the travel guide and highlighting places of interest. I knew we wouldn't have time to visit Hokkaido or the islands in the south so I concentrated on Honshu, the main island of Japan where most of the major cities are found. Kantō, Kansai and Chūgoku are the regions of Honshu (anything south of Tokyo basically) we'll be exploring. I also bought a guide book for Korea but I know that we will only make it to a couple of destinations as our main focus is Japan.
As I read my book I started to make a note of cities I want to visit. Whilst I want to see as much of Japan as possible I don't want to be staying in a different hotel every other night, so some cities need to work as day trip destinations. Fortunately the trains in Japan make day tripping between cities pretty easy so all I had to do was decide which cities I want to be based in and for how many nights.
I knew I had to think about Tokyo carefully, it's a huge city that deserves a decent amount of time but not too much to stop me seeing other places, plus I want to day trip to Nikko, Kamakura and Yokohama. I know I'll need to stay in Kyoto and Osaka for a large chunk of our time, there's so many important things to see plus I want to go on day trips to Nara, Nagoya, Ise, Koya-San, Kobe and Himeji. Hakone seems like a great option to spend a night in a traditional guest house and Hiroshima is small enough that one full day is probably enough to see the major sites. I like the idea of visiting an island but because the likes of Okinawa are too far away the arty island Naoshima seems like a great alternative. During this process I also started asking friends who had been to Japan where they recommend as these tips can be more useful than any guide book. Apart from Seoul in South Korea we also want to see Busan, it's the second biggest city in the country plus it's on the coast so it'll be nice to visit the beach.
Once I decided which cities to visit the next step was to decide for how long and in what order. I know we will be flying to Busan from Osaka so I looked at the map and played join the dots with the cities we will be staying in, it's as simple as that. My route now looks something like this: Tokyo - Hakone - Kyoto - Naoshima - Hiroshima - Osaka - Busan - Seoul.
Deciding how many nights to stay in each place has taken a little experimentation. I made a list of what I wanted to do in each city and if there are any day trip destinations we would like to go on. It was then a matter of seeing how everything fits into our time frame and altering travel days until it all slots into place (this is where that Excel spreadsheet comes in handy). This took a little editing and ideally I'd love to have a few extra days in Tokyo and Kyoto but overall I am super happy with the plan. We have 5 nights in Tokyo which will give us 3 full days for sighting, a day at DisneySea, a day to visit Nikko and a day to visit Kamakura and Yokohama. We then have one night in Hakone, followed by 5 nights in Kyoto which include 2 full days of sightseeing, a day trip to Nara and another day trip to Nagoya and Ise. After Kyoto we'll have one night on the island of Naoshima followed by 2 nights in Hiroshima. Our final stop in Japan is 4 nights in Osaka where we have 2 days for sightseeing and visiting Universal Studios plus a day to visit Koya-San and another day to visit Kobe and Himeji. From here we fly to Busan where we only have time to spend 1 night and then we have 3 nights in Seoul which includes a day trip to the North Korean border.
Phew, it's quite exhausting thinking about it all but I'm super excited for the sheer amount of places we'll get to visit. Yes it'll be tiring but I wouldn't have my holidays any other way. I'm now at the stage where I'm booking accommodation and planning what we'll do each day. Whilst I don't normally plan a day-to-day itinerary I feel like I need to for this trip as there is so much to pack in we have to be really economical with our time. Accommodation has been interesting, I want to stay in a mixture of places i.e. traditional inns, boutique style hotels, capsules etc. but I'm discovering that many places don't let you reserve more than 6 months in advance so my calender is currently filled with reminders regarding booking details. We have an airbnb in Shibuya plus a traditional ryokan in Hakone and a hanok in Seoul. I've booked a guest house in Kyoto but might change this if I spy something else more interesting but apart from that everything else is still up in the air.
As well as accommodation I still need to book things like Studio Ghibli museum tickets, our Japan Rail passes, DisneySea and Universal Studio tickets, our flight from Osaka to Busan, the train from Busan to Seoul and a special restaurant for my 30th birthday meal.
Even though this trip isn't for another 6 months I'm trying to keep on top of everything. This helps spread out the costs and also means I won't feel unprepared closer to the time. I'll write another update when more things are booked but for now I hope you've enjoyed this insight into my travel planning mind.