One would think that after so many trips, planning for a trip would be a matter of going through the motions and things would no doubt go smoothly.
It’s actually the other way, I think. The more experience one has the more one knows how things could go wrong and begins to consider all of the factors. Overthinking, is just much a headache as ignorance.
That’s how things ended up being quite messy for this trip’s planning. A lot of back and forth, a lot of indecisions, and way too much shifting around.
Initially the trip was prompted by the Shinkai Makoto exhibition, a celebration looking back at the road which the director took over the decade from the humble debut of Voices of a Distant Star to the phenomenon hit Your Name.
The exhibition was touring around Japan, starting from the Z-Kai Kotoba Museum which had hosted the previous Shinkai World exhibit, to Koumi Museum near Shinkai’s hometown in Nagano, Tokyo in Nov-Dec then to Sapporo in Jan-Feb 2018.
The Sapporo date overlapped with the Sapporo Snow Festival so the idea came about. Why not hit the snow festival and the exhibition at the same time, can also throw in the penguin parade at Asahikawa zoo.
Planning initially went smoothly. The trip would either be Sapporo in-out, or Hakodate-Sapporo in-out. Or if time permitted, perhaps even enter via Tokyo or Sendai.
I really miss that milk curry ramen in Aomori.
A friend Y also indicated an interest in being dragged along which I happily agreed to. Travelling by oneself was very exhausting and sometimes demoralizing. Having a companion would help keep things interesting and keep from slacking off back to the hotel early as I had done several times before.
There was always a nagging problem though. Hokkaido is really hard to plan in winter.
Hokkaido in winter is cold, the daylight short, and the weather unpredictable. Since it’s the off-season many tourist spots either don’t open at all or has shortened hours. Combined with the long travel distances between the main towns, it makes planning meaningful trips a headache.
Since daylight is limited, travelling during the day is really not desired, problem is most locations do not have enough attractions to warrant a full day. Otaru maybe just over half a day, Asahikawa however long one can spend in the zoo, Hakodate has enough for a day except one would want to arrive early enough to see the nighttime scenery which either means giving up one morning or one afternoon travelling to/from Sapporo.
Within Sapporo itself it’s not much better, outside of the Sapporo Beer Museum and Shiroi Koibito Park, there’s shopping, eating and… that’s more or less it.
What are at best C list tourist spots in other areas ends up on the B list for Hokkaido, and there just aren’t that many A grade spots in Hokkaido. So one either force oneself to spend too much time at one location to make the most of the day given how long it took to get there, or spend less time at each place and waste most of the trip on the trains.
Extra considerations also had to be built into the schedule in case blizzards stopped the trains or worse flights. There had to be a few flexible days that could be shuffled around for the Asahikawa zoo day trip, and the first and last night had to be in the city.
Nevertheless, planning continued and hotel bookings were made with a few additional days on either side to be adjusted closer to the date.
Then I started looking at flights, and it was clear that it was going to be too difficult.
Despite still almost half a year away, the tickets prices were getting high and the seats getting few. Unless the flight could be locked down within a week or two it was quite possible for the more suitable dates to be sold out.
The decision was made then to scrap the idea of going to Hokkaido and bring the trip forward to visit the exhibition in Tokyo.
That caused its own sets of problems. Namely I’m not particularly fond of Tokyo – too much shops, not enough other stuff. Some people can spend an entire day (or days) doing the strip at Omotesando or Shinjuku. Something that will barely last me two hours.
The other thing that Tokyo had plenty of are places to eat. Problem is they all tend to require queuing up. Something again I am terrible with.
So I decided to aim for either the Christmas lights in early December, or the autumn leaves in late November.
Two set of plans were thus drawn up, targeting the different periods. More lights, or more leaves.
Things started looking up. The Shinkai Makoto exhibition was going to take half a day, maybe a few hours doing the pilgrimage around Shinjuku visiting spots that appeared in Your Name. Throw in a day in Hakone, a day in Kamakura, a half day out to the west to visit a sake brewery followed by half a day being healed by penguins in the aquarium plus some sightseeing/snacking in Ginza. Fits in fairly well for a 5-6 day trip.
In fact, Tokyo had changed quite a lot since I visited in 2011. There were a lot of new spots to visit, such as the Skytree, the Daikanyama T-Site, the Manseibashi complex beneath the former station platforms, even Asakusa had changed quite a bit (not that I did it justice the last time).
Then Y mentioned that only 2 days off was possible, meaning including weekends at best 4 days.
Around the same time I also realized that it was possible to book what was called open jaw flights, that is a return flight to Taiwan cost the same as a flight to Japan then a return flight from Taiwan, I only had to book an additional single flight from Japan to Taiwan. This meant compared to what I had done before, booking a Taiwan return from Sydney, then a Japan return from Taiwan, doing a triangle flight of Sydney->Japan->Taiwan->Sydney saved an entire day and the cost of a single flight.
This presented me with a different problem. I was suddenly presented with additional days compared to what I had previously planned for. Whereas before it might have been Tuesday to Sunday, I was now looking at Sunday to Sunday.
The trip became two halves. The first half I would be on my own, then meet up with Y for the second half.
The exhibition was of course moved to the first half, then I had the vague idea of doing the kanto area using the Kanto Area pass. Kusatsu Onsen maybe, since I always wanted to visit it but never did find the time, at this stage not sure about the rest.
The sudden opening up of options aside, I decided to aim for the early 20s of November for the later half, a bit of a gamble between autumn leaves and Christmas lights. It turned out to be a good choice too as came December comes the off peak season and many shops would have been closed in Hakone and Karuizawa.
Ideally a week earlier would have been better for autumn leaves in Hakone, but that risked being too early for Christmas lights in Tokyo. By picking the 20s, I figured even if I missed out on the autumn leaves, we’d get to see the ginkyo leaves in Tokyo at least.
Tiger Air offered a red eye flight with arrival in Haneda at 4am, so thankfully Y’s first day can be a full day, if a very tiring one. Since I wanted to keep day 2 and 3 flexible for Hakone in case of weather, I allocated the first day for the trip to the sake brewery as its english guided tour required advanced reservations.
With a vague timeline drawn up, I moved on to securing accommodations.
The usual places to stay in Tokyo was either west side (Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya), or east side Ueno/Akihabara or area near Tokyo station/Ginza/Nihonbashi.
Shinjuku was discarded as I had no desire of risking Kabukicho. If I was on my own it might have been fine, just had to skirt around the edges and stick to the main road when getting to and from the hotel, but I was responsible for more than myself on this trip. Outside of Kabukicho the hotels tended to be some distance away from the station, not to mention expensive. Shinjuku station is also a nightmare to navigate.
Tokyo accommodation prices have really gone up since I last visited.
Ikebukuro and Shibuya I saw little reason to stay at, since they were a little out of the way for the places I had planned on visiting.
That leaves the east side, which had better access to airports anyway.
Last time I had stayed at Ueno, looking at it now with more experience, it was surprisingly poorly situated if one wasn’t heading to the north east. Yamanote line was slow, to access the west side it was generally much faster to take the Chuo line or pick one of the metros (which Ueno had especially poor access to). Akihabara was well situated but hotel choices were few.
Kinshicho, which I had never even heard of before, stood out as a place that’s surprisingly convenient despite being outside of the central areas. It has access to both Chuo and Sobu line meaning it can access Shinjuku and Tokyo station without transfer. The metro Honzomon line north south through it giving it access to Skytree and Shibuya and easy transfers to other lines. For the cost of 10 extra minutes getting into Tokyo central, one could get some really cheap hotels.
The other focus was along the Asakusa line, which has direct access to both Haneda and Narita airport now that there is through service to the Keikyu and Keisei line.
During the search I also ran across the Shin-Nihonbashi/Mitsukoshi-mae area, which while not having access to the Asakusa line, did provide decent rail access if usually requiring transfers. It traded some convenience for cheaper prices.
The focus though, really fell to Shinbashi. It’s very much an office area and not a shopping area, which is probably why it doesn’t usually rank very high on people’s radars. The hotels here were slightly more expensive, more than places like Ueno but cheaper than Shinjuku/Ikebukuro/Shibuya. It does however have amazing access for what I had planned.
Yamanote line. Via the Asakusa line direct access to both airports and of course, Asakusa. Ginza line gives it access up the Ginza strip and out west to Shibuya and Meiji Jingu Mae. A short walk to Shiodome and we get the Christmas lights at Caretta and the Oedo line goes west to Roppongi and Shibuya and east to Tsukiji.
The Shinbashi/Shiodome combination gave access to Yamanote and JR main line, 3 metros, 4 if one counted the Mita line which is also within walking distance. Outside of Ikebukuro it had direct access to every location I had potentially planned. There is also the Yurikamome line to Odaiba, providing the option of going to the Oedo Monogatari Onsen early morning on Y’s arrival if the situation called for rest and recovery.
Access to the airport is of particular importance. Since Shinbashi is so near to Haneda it allowed me to go to the airport to pick up Y and allowed dropping off the luggage as soon as possible. On the last day we can make use of the morning without checking out, returning only when it’s time to go hop on the train directly to Narita.
There is also another critical factor which led to ultimately choosing Shinbashi, that is outside of Shinjuku, this was the one location that could realistically do a day trip to Hakone.
In the end as I had often done and perhaps too much so throughout this trip, I opted for convenience over cost over most things, and Shinbashi was settled on as the place to stay for the second half.
Once the second half was more or less outlined, I looked back to the first half. Kusatsu Onsen was going to take basically 2 days since it takes 3-4 hours just to get there. The remaining day was going to be either Karuizawa or Kamakura. It was going to be a day trip and was left open ended while I worked on more pressing parts of the schedule.
Incidentally I had some air miles up for expiry and instead of trading them for gift cards, I decided to look into what I accomodation I could get for them. Turned out I could get some really good deals, about 3 times what I could have gotten with gift cards. Either they had really good discounts with the partner hotels or they bought the rooms on a fixed rate that was less subject to seasonal fluctuations.
Sunday in Kusatsu, Monday, Tuesday in a separate hotel booked using air miles, then Wednesday in Shinbashi, a day earlier than Y to check out the area beforehand and also provide a place to throw luggage on the day.
Unfortunately my leave got approved later than expected so not only did I miss out on the cheapest fair, I also missed out on the Saturday red-eye with Sunday morning arrival. I had to settle for a Saturday day time flight with 9pm Haneda arrival instead and had to book an extra night close to the airport. Considering possible delays I was expecting check in possibly after 11pm. Given the circumstances, I decided a capsule hotel was probably the best, despite my reservations about them.
With accomodation and flight locked in, planning fell back into an endless loop of adding and removing, at the same time keeping a close eye on the autumn leave forecast.
An unusually late typhoon brought after it an early cold front, crashed the thermometer and started the autumn leave this year a week or two early. It looked like Hakone may be entirely out of autumn leaves by the planned dates. Worse, the typhoon blew away all the snow on top of Mount Fuji, leaving its peak barren and a sore sight.
A backup to Hakone was hurriedly planned. Centered around possibly going to Tofuya Ukai Shiba, followed by maybe a walk of the old districts of Nippori, plus several gardens in Tokyo famed for autumn leaves.
The backup plan turned out to be fruitless as I was not able to secure a booking at Tofuya, and the autumn leaves in Hakone turned out to be surprisingly resilient.
Nevertheless all the backup plans took most of the attention and I was glad that neither Kusatsu Onsen nor Karuizawa required much researching.