Japan & Korea 29 day self-guided trip [ The Planning ]

On to the boring stuffs first. Actually, the trip planning part of it was fun. Overwhelming at times, with the sheer number of choices, routes and things to do, sure, but it was like putting pieces of puzzles together until the picture kind of makes sense, if that makes sense. I hope this post would help someone thinking of visiting Japan and Korea without joining a tour. It's totally doable and much more satisfying!

My original plan was 4 days in Seoul, 4 days in Tokyo, 3 days in Sapporo and 3 days in Kyoto. Once my two week vacation blew up into one month (I was ordered to take all my leave), I scrapped off Sapporo as it's out of the way and decided to explore Tokyo and Kansai area this time.

I spent 10 days in Korea before heading off to Japan for 19 days. The logical direction from Australia would be to visit Japan before Korea, but I wanted to spend Christmas and New Year in Japan (more on that later).

Singapore Airlines is my airline of choice, especially since I have a doctor's appointment in Singapore on my way back (It's an Asian thing) and Australia being so far away from anywhere, Singapore made for a great shopover, I mean, stopover. I scored comparatively cheap open jaw tickets for December ($1650):

Sydney - Singapore (transit, meet up with parents) - Seoul
Tokyo - Singapore (day trip) - Sydney

From Seoul to Tokyo, I booked a separate flight  with Asiana, via Priceline ($360).
Took this picture with my phone from some 30,000 feet above during my flight to Seoul

Day 1-5: Seoul 
Accommodation: S.A. Seoul Station apartment ()

Day 6-7: KTX to Busan

Accommodation: Hotel Foret (❤1/2 )

Day 8-10: KTX to Seoul

Day 9: Gapyeong day trip (Nami Island, Petite Prince, Garden of Morning Calm)
Accommodation: Frasers Place, Namdaemun ()

Airport transfer
- From Incheon Airport to Seoul Station, you can take a bus or express train (Arex) (43 minutes, 8000 won). Note that there is no express train after 9:30pm (timetable information here). I noted too late so we boarded an all stop train (3950 won), which took 53 minutes. Trust me, at 10 PM, 10 minute difference matters.

Transport in Seoul
Get a T-money card at the Airport's convenience store, which you can use to ride the subway (even Arex). Getting around Seoul with its subway system is pretty straightforward and convenient - too bad there is no express option (I don't think).

I printed out the Subway line map on an A3 paper (I like this one) and it became my bible. Yes, there is an app for that (Jihachul subway app for iOS), as there is one for everything, but I found that during my trip, unnecessary apps drain battery and I saved it for Google Maps for when we got lost.

Cab rides are cheap too (less than $10) and would be an option for short trips, especially if you have 3 or more people.

Korean Pass
Having never been to Korea, we skipped Jeju island (gasp!) since we'd need to fly there and it would be too cold to venture out for outdoor activities in the Winter anyway. We focused mainly on Seoul. Still, I don't think we even scratched the surface of this city. 

We took KTX to spend two nights in Busan. Depending on the type of car and time, standard class seat to Busan cost about 50,000 won ($50). Instead, I bought KR Passes online and exchanged them at Seoul Station. As there were 3 of us, I obtained Saver rate at 76,100 won pp for 3 days, saving almost 72,000 won for the return trip.

You can book a pocket wifi in advance or get a local simcard. We went with the only choice available then, Evergreen Mobile simcard, but had to dial an operator number every time we made international call. We eventually changed to Olleh, which wasn't much more expensive and definitely way more convenient.

Due to the country being on the receiving end of the Siberian wind, it was so much colder in Korea than Japan. It snowed in Seoul once we got back from Busan and this was in early December. While it was achingly beautiful for someone who'd never been to a place that snows, the weather was bitterly frosty. It was honestly too cold to stay outdoor for long and caused us to cancel some plans and cut our sightseeing short. I can't say I regret going there in the winter - after all, I took some of the most beautiful shots there - but it would be just perfect to visit Korea in the Fall.
Remaining maple leaves in Osaka Castle, Japan
Day 1-4: Tokyo
Day 3: Hakone day trip
Accommodation: Century Southern Tower Hotel, Shibuya (❤1/2)

Day 5-6: Osaka

Day 6: Kobe day trip
Accommodation: Hotel Granvia Osaka (❤1/2)

Day 7: Miyajima

Accommodation: Ryoso Kawaguchi Ryokan (❤1/2)

Day 8: Hiroshima day trip

Day 8-12: Kyoto
Day 11: Nara and Uji day trip
Accommodation: Hotel Granvia Kyoto ()

Day 13: Nagoya day trip

Day 13-14: Takayama
Accommodation: Best Western Takayama ()

Day 15: Matsumoto

Accommodation: Matsumoto Marunouchi hotel (❤1/2)

Day 16: Nagano

Day 16: Yamanouchi / Snow Monkey Park
Accommodation: Korakukan Ryokan, Yamanouchi ()

Day 17-19: Tokyo

Day 18: Yokohama day trip and an impulse visit to Disneysea
Accommodation: Park Hotel, Shinbashi ()
Japan: Airport transfer
I highly recommend using Narita Express (NEX) train to reach Tokyo area (53 minutes). A one-way NEX combo with Suica card (preloaded with 1,500 yen) cost 3,500 yen pp (more info and packages here).

Japan Rail Pass

In Japan, the cities are so conveniently and closely connected to each other (i.e. Osaka and Kyoto being mere 30 minutes from each other) that we found ourselves city-hopping every other day. I bought 14 day JR Passes at Travel Japan by H.I.S in Sydney, exchanged the passes at JR East Office in Narita and arranged for it to be activated on the day we left for Osaka. JR Pass aren't always worth the bucks so do calculate how much your entire trip roughly cost on Hyperpedia. Note that the pass doesn't work on the fastest trains (Nozomi and Mizuho) so check that off on the search options. I found the regular train (Hikari, Sakura, Kodama, Tsubame) more than fast enough. Our trips normally took 2-3 hours and just as we got comfortable (read: doze off), it was time to get off.

Our Ordinary Car JR passes cost AU $466 per person. Green Car (first class) pass
would cost $627. There isn't much difference other than extra leg room and posher interior (fluorescent lighting in the ordinary car vs Woody Allen lighting in the green car) but I would actually  get a Green Car pass next time just for that extra comfort. 

I highly recommend reserving seats in advance as it's free with the pass. Just pop by any JR ticket office with your destination and desired time. You could technically reserve all your seats when you arrive in Japan but considering you'd likely change schedule, it's better to book 1-2 days ahead, except during peak season.

Your JR pass covers Shinkansen / bullet train, intercity trips and all train lines run by JR. There are many private train lines in Japan - too many in my opinion that it gets confusing for a first-timer and time consuming to transfer from one line to another. For non JR trains and Subway, I used Suica card - convenient, albeit quite expensiveOne of the most frequently used train lines is the JR Yamanote in Tokyo, which goes on a loop. I personally find it always too crowded and avoid it at all cost. Experiencing rush hour in Japan (with luggage to boot) was an unforgettable experience that I would like to forget :-)

I rented a pocket wifi from Global Advanced Communication for 19 days at 10,600 yen. They moved the pickup location to coincide with my flight's terminal so I didn't have to go all the way up to the post office in level 4, which was a nice touch. We used the pocket wifi on iPhone, iPad and Samsung simultaneously. The device was small and light. A full charge lasted a day and we didn't find the need for extra battery. Connection was fast for our needs (75MBPS), only slightly patchy when we reached tunnels and was unavailable during the one night we stayed in the mountain (both understandable). Can't be happier. 

Aside from pocket wifi, one can either rent a phone or simcard to stay connected while in Japan. My dad refused to believe that one can't just pop into the store and get a prepaid simcard (it's not a practice there) and opted not to rent a phone at Softbank branch at Narita despite my insistence.

While he later realised I was right, it turned out that not every Softbank branch in Tokyo has rental phones so I strongly suggest either book the phone in advance or check the stock at their airport branch. In the end, he had to use the good ol' telephone cards (so much drama there also). It was tedious to wait as my dad searched for a phone booth, but hilarious every time he managed to get a call through and the first thing he'd say was always, "You won't believe how hard it is to call you from Japan!"

Our hotels were prebooked two months in advance for two reasons: good ones are sold out really quickly in December, particularly Tokyo, and you can get better deals by booking ahead.

Hotels in Japan are charged per person, so for the three of us, we had triple rooms for most of the trip, except during New Year in Tokyo where I had a single room all to myself.

While searching for accommodation, I looked for comfortable, reasonably priced room and, at my mother's request, not budget. My dad is also a "let's call a cab" kind of person, so I made sure to book places near train station and in the case of Granvia Kyoto and Osaka, right inside the station. 

Our accommodation cost averaged $200-250 a night (sans breakfast because why would you pay $20 extra pp when you have access to some of the best pastry shops?). We splurged a little on the two nights at ryokan / traditional Japanese inn, but that included full Kaiseki (multi-course traditional Japanese meal) dinner and breakfast.

Up next would be my first two nights in Seoul (hint: it didn't get off to a good start).


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