Letters from Japan – Autumn 2022

After a long but a very long wait – 2.5 years – Japanese government has finally decided to re-welcome the foreign visitors and lift the visa, tour group and the guide requirement. Visa exemption applies to those from countries that were included in the visa waiver list prior to COVID-19 Pandemic. 

The new policy will be in effect as of 11 October 2022.

Requirements to Enter Japan as a Tourist

While the visa and group tour requirement will no longer apply, the visitors will need to either submit a vaccine certificate showing three doses of COVID-19 vaccination (Pfizer and Moderna are the types of vaccines accepted by the Japanese government) or a negative PCR test. As of 11 October 2022, there will also no longer be any daily limit in terms of the number of people who can enter Japan.

While Japan has been gradually opening its borders since June 2022, the visitors were initially required to apply for visas and also join a group tour. In early September, the group tour requirement was lifted but the hotel and ticketing arrangements still had to be made via an authorized travel agency. As of 11 October 2022, independent travelers will be able to visit Japan without having to involve a travel agency for their travel arrangements or getting a visa if they are from a visa waiver country.

The announcement comes at a good time. I find autumn to be the best season to visit Japan.

Japan Travel Deals for Visitors

Japan used to be a discouragingly expensive country to visit. However, with growing weakness of Japanese Yen but also the speedy development of the facilities (thanks to pro-tourism governmental policies of the last decade) that also cater to the needs of solo/independent travelers, there may be a no better time to visit Japan. Below are some tips that may help you with your travel costs.

Famous Japan Rail Pass

If you are planning to visit Japan, the already well known Japan Rail Pass, which is easily one of the greatest travel deals of all time (the cost of one week pass that covers all Shinkansen lines in the country is equal to the price of a round-trip Shinkansen ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto), is one of your best options to lower the transportation cost.  The Japan Rail Pass comes in three forms – one week (USD 230), two weeks (USD 370) and three weeks (USD 460) pass. With an extensive rail network including many high speed rail – Shinkansen – lines, the pass covers all main islands in Japan including Hokkaido. Understandably, Okinawa is the only destination not served by a train in Japan.

In addition to the Japan Rail Pass that covers the entire JR train network in the country (and even some buses and ferries), there are also many regional passes. When I first visited Japan in 2012, I  did not buy the Japan Rail Pass but the Kansai Wide Area Pass, that covered many of the highlights of Kansai region (home to Kyoto and Osaka). This is a great site which lists all the regional passes available in Japan to temporary visitors and in limited cases to residents of Japan holding a foreign passport.

Airfare Deals for Foreign Visitors

While the rail pass is a wonderful deal, it is not your only option when visiting Japan. You can also benefit from special airfares  only available to foreign visitors who enter Japan with a temporary visitor stamp on their passport. Before I moved to Japan, I often benefited from Discover Japan Fare of ANA Airlines to visit locations that are either not served by train, like Okinawa, or require almost a full day of train travel, like Hokkaido. With this special fare, you can get one way plane ticket to anywhere in Japan for approximately USD 70. All you need to do is to show a proof of temporary visitor stamp on your passport and a return ticket to a destination outside of Japan.

Reasonably Priced Accommodation

Thanks to very high  hygienic standards, accommodation in Japan is often a very delightful experience. Even low cost accommodation often come with not only relatively high hygiene but also design standards. With a careful planning, I always found Japan to be one of the easiest countries to control travel expenses. There are many hostels even in the rural Japan. I listed some of my favorite hostels in Japan in this post. Hostels are however not your only option. In addition to many design hotels, there are temple and kominka style accommodation where visitors get to enjoy a traditional style Japanese house.

Where to Visit in Japan?

While I can relate to anyone who may want to visit Tokyo, where I live, and Kyoto – still one of the finest cities in the world – you may also consider some alternative destinations with lesser crowds but equally rewarding offerings. 

Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture

Goto Islands located off the coast of Nagasaki City is one of the most interesting places to visit in Japan. The islands have been the gracious host of Hidden Christians of Japan since the early 18th century.

There are today many Christian churches on all five islands making up the Goto Islands and some of those churches are listed as UNESCO Heritage. Goto is also where the story behind Martin Scorsese`s movie Silence took place (but the filming was done in Taiwan).

It is a perfect destination that combines picturesque scenery with sites related to a very interesting but somehow lesser known period in the history of Japan.

Bike Shimanami Kaido to Explore the Seto Inland Sea

Shimanami Kaido is a scenic cycling route that connects Honshu to Shikoku over five bridges and many small islands that occupy the Seto Inland Sea. The whole route – where you only need to climb to reach the bridges – can be done in a day but it is best to take your time along the route and enjoy various small islands where you really get to witness the rural life of Japan. 

My favorite among the small islands is the truly tiny Sashima Island where you can stay at Shiomi Guesthouse in the company of wonderful hosts and delicious food.

Kanazawa – One Fine City

Kanazawa served by Shinkansen (2.5 hours from Tokyo) is a mid-size city with everything. It has a deep history linked to the Samurai culture that can be explored in a well preserved Samurai district. The city is also home to many museums including one of the finest contemporary art museums in Japan. I also find the range of eateries and accommodation in Kanazawa to be exceptionally rich.

Kanazawa is a wonderful alternative to anyone looking for an urban experience without the crowds of Kyoto.

Yakushima – the Land of Ancient Forests

Yakushima, which famously inspired some of the scenery in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, may need no introduction. Located off the coast of Kagoshima in southern Japan, the island is a hiking destination like no other. 

The relatively small island (132 km in circumference) is home to numerous hiking trails where everyone will find a good fit for their level of experience. Out of all the hikes and walks that I did in Yakushima during my three visits, Mt. Miyanoura hike still stands out as my absolute favorite.

Shikoku – Fishing Villages Along the Pilgrimage Trail

Shikoku – one of the most secluded islands of Japan (not served by Shinkansen) – is best known for its pilgrimage route that covers 88 buddhist temples. 

The pilgrimage route itself on average requires 1.5-2 months to complete but many people – like myself who are short on time – choose to walk some of the more scenic sections of the route. One of the most beautiful sections of the route goes all the way down to Cape Ashizuri in Kochi Prefecture where you can stay in an ocean side temple.

Walk Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo, a network of ancient pilgrimage trails, covering Ise and Wakayama Prefectures, is a lesser known pilgrimage route in Japan. I walked parts of Nakahechi Route and Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo long before I explored the Shikoku Pilgrimage Route.

The experience on Nakahechi and Iseji is very different than Shikoku. Both trails go through forestry areas passing on a delightful sense of isolation and remoteness. 

Nakahechi Route leads to the center of Buddhism in Japan – Koyasan where you can spend the night at a Buddhist temple and join the morning prayer session.

Hike All Over Japan

Although Japan is better known with its interesting culture to visitors, the country is also home to some wonderful hiking trails. Even short and undemanding hikes will often reward you with wonderful scenery. The part of the Nakasendo trail that connects the old Edo era post towns of Magome to Tsumago is a short – 2-3 hours – trail that passes through an impossibly atmospheric tea house in a forest. For more hikes in Japan, you can check out my post listing some of my favorite hikes in Japan.

It would be unfair for me to stay that you should skip Tokyo or Kyoto during your visit to Japan. But even if you only have a week, the wonderful train network of the country makes it fairly easy to pick a third and alternative destination for a different taste of Japan.