These are the things you need to know before embarking on an epic adventure out to Asia as I did in 2012. Brace yourself though. It’s a lot of information and I’ve tried to summarize and organize it as best as I can.
This is my own take on things I learned, things I wish I knew and things that will make me that much smarter of a traveller from here on out. Get ready for your mind to be blown away with this backpacking Asia travel guide.
I’ve broken down the tips & tricks into a general area, by country and then by city.
Read more about travelling Asia
Best deals on hotels?
- Probably no surprise here but unless you’re using your points through hard work with travel hacking credit cards, Booking is going to be your best platform because they have the biggest inventory and have easy cancellations. After that, I’d go after Airbnbs for longer stays especially with the free credit you can get.
Backpacking Asia Travel Guide
Planning a multiple-month trip throughout Southeast Asia and more broadly East Asia is a daunting task and something that I did not without stumbling and learnings along the way.
During my 3-month adventure, I meticulously captured all the things I wish I knew before going and in many ways this is a listing of all of that and the associated feelings I had at that particular moment.
The purpose of this backpacking Asia travel guide is to give you food-for-thought and a heads up on all the countries that are featured here.
Here's what we're covering:
- Backpacking Asia Travel Guide
- What I learned backpacking Southeast Asia and beyond
- Country: Hong Kong
- Country: Indonesia
- Country: Singapore
- Country: Cambodia
- Country: Thailand
- Country: China
- Country: Taiwan
- Country: Palau
- Country: Japan
- Country: Canada
- Country: USA
What I learned backpacking Southeast Asia and beyond
- This is something I’m always guilty of but always remember to change the time setting on your camera(s) before heading out. I’ve gone on too many trips where my time stamps were all out of whack.
- When dealing with intense heat on the streets just jump from A/C
- Hand washing your clothes is the key to stay fresh.
- Dry-fit clothes – If you’re coming to Southeast Asia you are inevitably going to sweat like crazy like we did on this day. Dry fit clothes do make a difference though as it takes less time to dry up and easier to cool down in them. Make sure you pack a few of these for your trip down here.
- When travelling in Southeast Asia make sure you see if it’s worth it to use the Bangkok Airways Discovery Airpass.
- Always bring bug spray or travel with someone that is popular amongst the mosquito community
- Mainly for girls but I guess guys too…bring a spare mini roll of toilet paper if you need to do your business outside the hotel.
- To tripod or not to tripod – I have to say if you want to do many sunrise and sunset photos AND you’re not doing hardcore backpacking then it’s worth it. If none of the above then leave it at home. You can also look at getting one of those Gorilla Pods for DSLR’s.
- I always have to seem to have a wonky throat but bring some Strepsils or Cepacols to start your trip. The rest you can buy along the way as they seem to be everywhere.
- Bring a Buff. Super versatile and useful.
- Always pack a headlamp. You’ll need one for sure if you plan on doing any sunrises but regardless you never know when you might need light in dark places.
- Show up early to the airport – Arriving 2 hours before even for a domestic flight might be a good idea in case shit happens. In Cambodia, our scheduled flight was cancelled when we showed up and luckily they put us on an earlier flight.
- A key part of travelling logistics if you have multiple sets of bags is to utilize the hotels you’re staying at to store luggage so you don’t have to carry it around to wherever you’re travelling to like I did. This of course only works if you’re returning back to the city where you’re dropping it off but this has saved me on multiple occasions including last year when I was in the London for work and I spent 2 weeks backpacking afterwards.
- If you’re going to be using hotel points book as early as possible even if just to hold the dates. With Hilton you can cancel without consequence up to 24 hours before your arrival date so a trick that I’ve been using is making a few reservations in advance if I’m unsure about the exact dates I want. The problem that I ran into with Koh Samui was that during the planning we ended up adding an extra Koh Samui date last minute. When I called Hilton back to make the shift, the hotel had already locked down all the rooms and all the Hilton Honors rooms jumped sky high. As a result we had to use my friend’s then-SPG points to save us for that first night. Another place where you can typically book with easy cancellation is Booking.
- If you have breakfast included in your hotel you can always ask for a breakfast box to be made for you if you’re needing to depart before the restaurant opens. Just ask concierge or front desk. No cost.
- Do your research on Flyertalk to see what other people say about the hotel and in particular the benefits you may get as being a member of the hotel chain’s program. I wouldn’t have known about the free spa if it wasn’t for Flyertalk.
- I tried this so you don’t have to. There was a Thai Airways lounge in Phuket so I’d try to see if I could get away with just showing my Air Canada Elite card but of course you need to have an accompanying boarding pass with a Star Alliance carrier which I clearly didn’t have (I was with AirAsia).
Country: Hong Kong
- If taking the HK Airport Express outbound, use their check-in counters at the Hong Kong Station. It’ll save you an incredible amount of time because you don’t have to factor in travel time to the airport since you’ve already checked your bags in at the Hong Kong Station.
- Hong Kong is a tricky place to get a hotel if you’re not on points so do your research. I used Priceline which I seemed to only get something around the $100 mark but don’t discount some high quality hostels which I found out later was much cheaper. Find what suits you.
- If you want to save money and you need to get to Kowloon from the airport, I highly recommend the A21 bus. It’s actually quite scenic, easy to find and 33 HKD to boot. Look for Cityflyer (thanks Chantelle for the idea!).
- If you’re going to be in Hong Kong and you like dim sum you have to check out Tim Ho Wan. The original MK location is the one to go to. The cheapest 1-Michelin star rated restaurant in the world!
- One of the awesome things about Hong Kong is that there’s practically free wifi everywhere. There multiple occasions when I really needed a connection and I was always able to find one called ‘PCCW Free’.
- Take bus 40 from Causeway Bay to get to Stanley.
- If you’re in HK check out this store called Homeless which I randomly discovered. It has a ton of cool gifts and home accessories that I think any one of you would love. Apparently it’s pretty popular right now so you should be able to find a store close to you.
- I would definitely recommend checking out the Happy Valley Racetrack if you’re around on a night when a race is going on. I was luckily there on a Wednesday so they usually have one on that day. Gambling is cheap (you can bet as little as you want…1HKD?) but I can see being addictive. Atmosphere is great and comfortable because it’s almost all foreigners.
- b.a.r. Executive is a really nice bar to lounge around with some friends. The snacks you get are awesome and each drink is meticulously made by the Japanese owner. Apparently he has his own container that allows him to bring in things fresh from Japan. 27/F Bartlock Centre, 3 Yiu Wa St., Causeway Bay.
- I am not afraid to admit that I got lost in MK a few times. The thing for me was that all the streets around there looked kind of the same and without a real way to figure out your orientation I was walking around in circles. Thank goodness Queenie came to the rescue. She helped me out after I texted her. What I would recommend is definitely bringing out a map (since I was a dumbass and forgot). Have a pre-paid SIM with data I think is also invaluable especially if you’re going to be in Hong Kong for awhile. If not, do some preplanning so you know where you’re going. Once you’re out there it’s surprisingly not that easy to figure out your bearings.
- I would say that the nunnery and garden isn’t exactly a must-see if you’re short on time but if you want to escape the city to somewhere more serene and green and you don’t want to travel very far, this is it.
- If you ever don’t know where to eat in Hong Kong and you see a Tsui Wah, just eat there. Good food for cheap.
- At a market like Sim City for camera stuff you have to bargain so don’t be afraid to ask for a lower price and walk away. I bought my tripod at DC Fever which is more of a legit store so I wasn’t able to there unfortunately.
- Currency exchange in Indonesia – When changing money make sure you double check all the bills even after they count it in front of you. Bring USD. The rates for CAD are always bad.
- Another quick note about currency exchange. Currency changers are VERY specific about what series bills $50′s and $100′s are. They only accept bills that are 2006 and higher. Chantelle had a few $100′s that she just couldn’t exchange because they were before that time. The reason for this is that there are a lot of counterfeit bills from the older era so to be safe these places don’t take it at all.
- Coming in May seems to be an awesome time to come because it is low-season and the local kids are still in school and it’s no longer wet season. It was great not having to deal with hoards of tourists everywhere we went.
- Stamps are ACTUALLY called “perango” and not “meterai”. Also it’s not exactly easy to find out how much it costs to send a postcard back to Canada but it’s 10,000 IDR.
- Airport fees in Indonesia – Make sure you have IDR stashed away for the departure fees. 35,000 for domestic and 150,000 for international departures. They will not take anything but IDR.
- When going through customs in Indonesia make sure you pay for your Visa on Arrival FIRST (make sure you have the exact amount in USD) and then go to the customs guy.
- Get a private driver to take you around Bali. Putu Arnawa is a highly recommended and you can tell from our days with our private driver Bali.
- Despite the Conrad Bali being a pretty awesome hotel, the Nusa Dua/Tengoban Benoa area is just too far from the main attractions on the island. Ubud is a good base for all the country side/temple sights and sad to say Kuta/Legian/Seminyak are good bases for the southern part of Bali. Travelling from our area always added about 1.5 hours each way because of insane chaotic traffic and this one main round-about clog right by the airport.
- Highly recommended to check out some off-the-beaten path local activities like the semi-annual celebrations or cock fights – talk to your driver
- Never pay for asking price at local markets. Start at 40% and go up from there.
- Tanah Lot and Uluwatu are great for sunsets
- Most local restaurants have free shuttles that will take you from your hotel to the restaurant so check first before grabbing a cab.
- Bumbu Bali is great if you’re in the Nusa Dua area. The set menus are good for first timers but I will have to say that the satay is their best item.
- Cozy 1 or 2 is definitely recommended. I couldn’t believe that their prices were actually cheaper than China. Professional throughout and nice facilities.
- Kuta looks like it’d be great for surfing as anyone wanting to go to Bali probably already knows. The surf isn’t too huge and is close to the beach. However it is very crowded and when we went during sunset filled with hawkers, tourists and local kids.
- Jimbaran is a cool area if you have the time. You can combine this with Uluwatu for sunset if you’d like. Lia Café was recommended to us but we ended up at JBS instead so don’t get conned by “free shuttles”.
City: Mount Bromo and Yogyakarta
- Java and anywhere east of Bali is on a different time zone. Set your watch 1 hour back.
- Travelling in Java is mostly by bus and with that means that things are very slow. Be prepared to be on a mini-bus for 9+ hours to get from city to city. I would definitely recommend booking with some place beforehand instead of trying to figure out your transportation in Java along the way. We met quite a few backpackers with nightmare stories about getting lost taking buses, locals trying to run scams and even buses dropping tourists off in front of a tourist office instead of the main terminal. They say never to get off and insist on going to the main terminal. To save the headache just get some mini-van to take you where you need to go. I can’t say it’s sketch free and your driver/van may change a million times along the way but somehow the system works and you’ll make it to your destination.
- If you’re travelling in Southeast Asia it obviously doesn’t make sense to travel with anything winter-ey. It is however probably smart to pack a light jacket and fleece in situations like a Mount Bromo where you can easily layer up to make yourself 5 degrees C ready.
- Mount Bromo is a must-do for sure. Kind of a pain in the ass to get there but it’s worth the one day to check out.
- Manohara for the Borobudur Sunrise is a good idea for sure. We weren’t lucky enough to see the advertised sunrise but with less tourists to fight with to get unobstructed photos and cooler temperatures I say you can’t go wrong. Just try to check into the hotel earlier so you don’t have to do what we did and sleep 3 hours!
- Make sure you try the local Gudeg when you’re in Yogyakarta. Local specialty and pretty good.
- When you land in Singapore don’t be cheap. Just take the cab. It’s way easier and decently cheap for the convenience. If you insist on taking the subway don’t bother to line up at the counter with the guy behind it. You can only buy single journey tickets at the machines.
- To use free wifi at the Singapore airport you have to go to any information desk. They’ll check your passport and hand you a slip of paper with a username and password.
- Go to Ya Kun for kaya toast for sure. That spread is amazing!
- Marina Bay Sands observation deck is a must do if you’re not staying at the hotel. I’m not sure if the price of the room is worth it but if it is totally stay there if not for the ability to use the infinity pool which looks awesome.
- Be careful about the extra taxi fees depending on the time of day of travel so don’t be alarmed when you see your base fare almost go 1.5x more than you thought. There’s almost a fee tacked on at every point of the day but can be upwards to 50% of your base fare if you’re travelling during rush hour. At first I thought they were totally scamming us
- If you want to gamble, make sure you bring your passport as the casino was really made for foreigners. If you’re a local you have to pay 100 SGD I was told.
- If there’s anything you NEED to do in Singapore…it’s visit a hawker center. Must trys are (Chicken on rice, nasi lemak, kuay teow, chili crab, laksa, bak kut teh [we have it the next day], roti prata, satay)
- In Singapore postcard stamps to Canada are 0.50 SGD. Also didn’t sound like any convenient stores sold them so you might have to hunt for a post office.
City: Siem Reap
- Remember that you’re going to need to get a visa-on-arrival in Cambodia. You can do an e-Visa but it costs a bit more and doing it when you land is just as easy. So the visa itself costs $20 USD (again make sure you carry enough USD on your trip) and you’re going to need one passport-sized photo so remember to bring a couple extra copies for these type of situations. You basically fill out the form, pay and hand everything to cashier and then stand in another line for pickup where your passport goes through an assembly line of 6 or 7 officers. Eventually you pick it up but remember to write in your customs form what Visa number you got since you can’t really fill it out on the plane. My friend had an anal customs guy that made him get out of line and write it down.
- Be prepared for super aggressive drivers here. Everyone seems to be probing for what your plans are and if you think about it they’re pretty smart for doing that because that’s really the best way to try to hook customers into doing tours with you.
- Negotiate the price before you get on the tuktuk. Walking away is a key part of the strategy most times and always pretend to be willing to go find another guy or walking to where you’re trying to go.
- Cambodia and well Siem Reap in particular use USD as the primary currency and so it makes no sense at all to do any currency exchange here. All the prices are quoted in USD so you’d just be confusing yourself even more if you tried to pay in Cambodian Riel. Keep in mind though that any change that you get may be in Riel. It’s a bit of hit or miss. Some places will have USD change and some places won’t.
- If you arrive earlier in Siem Reap you may consider visiting Angkor Wat for sunset. The deal is that if you purchase the day pass after 5PM it is valid for the next day and also provides admission for the day you’re buying it. Note that the park closes at 6:30 or 7PM.
- Highly recommend getting a driver/guide like Mr. Son to take you around. First of all, these guides know where to go and when to avoid the hoards of tourists and secondly the brief A/C breaks and water recharges.
- For the “money shot” of Angkor Wat you need to go for sunrise and not sunset. Do not take it from the outer wall behind the moat. You need to be actually within the complex and position yourself behind one of the lakes there to get that perfect reflection.
- A lot of these places don’t allow tripods. I didn’t get a chance to do sunrise at Angkor Wat but it wasn’t allowed at Phnom Bakheng when we went for sunset.
- If you have some extra time in Siem Reap, the Happy Valley Ranch option is pretty unique and another way to see the locals in their element.
- Temple dress code – Okay so I didn’t really think about this too much before the trip but you have to be a bit conscious about what to wear if you’re doing a temple day. Strictly speaking you need to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees and your feet but I found that this was loosely followed. Flip flops are totally fine. Sleeveless shirts also seem okay. Girls just need to make sure they have something to cover their shoulders though most temples seemed to give out sarong type things for free and also be mindful of the short skirts. But seriously I saw girls go in without following any of the above and they were fine.
- Do not change for Thai currency in your home country. You’ll get a crappy rate if you can find it all. Just get it changed at the airport as most travellers had suggested. I just withdraw from the ATM where you pick up your bags. Keep in mind if you withdraw from an ATM the local bank will charge you approximately $5CAD.
- The coin museum at Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace is kind of lame on its own but it isn’t really advertised that the different costumes for the Emerald Buddha are housed there so it’s a quick 5 minutes to check it out and is included with your general admission.
- Tuk tuks in Bangkok – Any tuk tuks near main tourist attractions are going to be part of the “gangs” (the ones that want to scam you and take you to their kick back shops or charge you ridiculously high amounts). If you can the best way is to walk out of these areas and just catch a tuk tuk that’s passing by on the road. After a few days you’ll kind of have a good idea about the going prices but something like Grand Palace to Khao San should only be about 50-70 baht. What we eventually realized on our last day is that taking a taxi on meter isn’t actually any more expensive than tuk tuks as we had originally thought so don’t be afraid to just hop on a cab. Just make sure the meter is on. NEVER do fixed fare on a cab.
- If you can definitely check out the Chatuchak Weekend Market if you’re in Bangkok on a Saturday or Sunday.
- Golden Mount closes at 5:30PM so be there before then if you want to go to the top for the views.
- Sky bar wise the Banyan Tree Hotel one seemed to be a good choice. Another top one on TA was literally called “Sky Bar” but I had read many reviews about it being way too crowded to enjoy it so I thought I’d try somewhere else.
City: Chiang Mai
- When doing my research Chiang Mai seemed to be well known for two things – trekking and cooking classes. If you’re not so into the trekking I’d definitely recommend a cooking class. It’s easy and a ton of fun. Even the worst cook can become make something edible. Siam Rice Thai Cookery Class is highly recommended. Nancy is awesome!
- Finding information about trekking is not easy at all. A lot of people recommended that I figure it out once we got there which is definitely possible since the streets are littered with travel/tour agencies. However I’d recommend digging a little deeper if you want something a bit more private or one that is less generic. Nikorn didn’t look that impressive on the net but turned out to be a real star. You’ll find out more about Nikorn in my next post.
- Gear to bring for trekking: Toilet paper roll, tiger balm, lots of bug spray, sunscreen, buff, cover for your bag if it rains or stuff your stuff in a plastic bag first before putting it in the backpack, quick dry and portable towel, waterproof hiking shoes/sandals, lots of water and a headlamp (very key at night).
- For the trek I didn’t bring a change of shirts or shorts as I figured we’d just be nasty all the time. I did however bring another pair of underwear. I also brought a pair of swim trunks because I knew we were doing some waterfall for the day. I also brought my light running jacket in case of rain but the rain was barely anything and when I put it on it was way too hot. Other than that I didn’t bring anything else clothing wise.
- Elephant riding is still something that happen in Thailand which is really unfortunate. It’s definitely something I regretted doing.
- Bamboo rafting is an amazing experience and definitely something you should try when in Chiang Mai.
City: Ko Samui/Koh Samui
- Probably the biggest lesson learned from Ko Samui is that the taxis are basically monopolized or run under one kingpin. They say they’re metered but they never use it or even have it on the car. Everything is pre-negotiated fixed fare and with that everything is jacked up sky high when you compare it to cities like Bangkok or even Chiang Mai. Lamai Beach to Mae Nam costed around 600 baht which is $20 CAD (pretty damn expensive). Once I get to the next blog post about our move to the Conrad and the transportation costs from there, 600 doesn’t even seem all that bad.
- I originally had a rental car booked and I really regretted cancelling it. The cost of the rental car for 4 days probably equaled the amount of money we ended up having to dish out for cab. Stupid stupid stupid!
- Barracuda is rated #1 on TripAdvisor and for good reason. Excellent food at decent prices. Just a bit far if you’re not in Bophut or Chaweng.
- If you’re on the south side of Ko Samui definitely check out Nuch’s Green Ta’lay Restaurant.
- CSI Samui is a highly recommended by me as a diving tour operator/instructor in Ko Samui so ask for their availability if you’re heading out there. I would say I had a better experience with them than later on in Phuket.
- Every Friday there’s a street market in Bophut that was neat to walk around so don’t miss it.
- Not sure if I mentioned it earlier but one of the ways to avoid the ridiculous cab fares is to take these flat-bed-converted-transport-trucks. For a fraction of the price they’ll take you around the ring road for a pre-negotiated price. The only thing is that sometimes they’ll wait for some other people to hop on at your stop before moving along again.
- Highly recommend Samui Boat Charter Co. if you’re looking to do Angthong but make sure you book it beforehand. Some other couples from the Conrad booked after they got here through the hotel and I’m sure they got dinged hard on that. If you want to do the climb up one of the islands in Angthong you may want to look elsewhere though.
- Forget about getting metered taxis in Phuket. Do your research beforehand if you’re going somewhere far or ask the hotel first.
- If you get a good driver and a cheap ride to your hotel from the airport make sure you get the guy’s number of business card. It’ll be useful for your ride back to the airport when you’re heading out of Phuket.
- My month in Shanghai is well covered so definitely check out how I spent my time there.
- The custom form you have to fill out asks for a visa number but don’t worry as Canadians you don’t need a visa to get into Taiwan.
- When they say night markets open “till late”, what they really mean is that they close around midnight.
- Ximending is definitely worth checking out and probably something you’ll naturally end up walking through just because a lot of shops and restaurants are around there.
- Transportation wise into the city, you’re stuck with either the airport bus service or taking the taxi. It’s a fixed fee of 1200 TWD with the taxi or 145 TWD to take the bus.
- This kind of goes for any city touring. I highly recommend marking out on your map where you need to check out. This will save an invaluable amount of time trying to figure stuff out on the fly, asking locals that never seem to know where stuff is or bickering with your travel buddy(s). Stuff is never as easy as you think it is to find so do yourself a favor and Google map everything beforehand.
- If you’re going to be in Taiwan visiting, make sure you pick a “Friend of Taiwan” card. You can only get this airport so you have to remember to do it at one of the main info desks. This card entitles you to a whole slew of discounts across the city.
- Din Tai Fung is a must-visit in Taiwan!
- If you only have time for one, Shilin Night Market is the one to go to.
- If you’re ever hit with a typhoon, as exemplified by our trip, you can always just shop and eat. No problem.
- If you’re going to be landing on some beautiful island make sure you request window seats that aren’t by the wing.
- If you’re spending lots of money to going to somewhere like Palau you might as well dish out a bit more for a better hotel. We had to learn this the hard way…yikes!
- West Plaza Malakal is definitely a lot better than Lehn’s. The best hotel to stay at I would say (bang for buck) would definitely be Sea Passion if you can get it. Unfortunately a lot of Taiwanese tour groups were staying there and we tried to book this Palau trip too late so it was all full by the time we were looking.
- If you haven’t gone diving in awhile, seriously think about doing a refresher either back at home to save time or as your first day of diving on a multi-dive day trip.
- It’s pretty awesome to be Open Water Diver certified. Once you’re certified you’re good for life. Toughest part is just the whole flooding of the mask but once you get over that it’s really not that bad. Everything else is a piece of cake. Get certified. Let the diving addiction start!
- It’s pretty much impossible to buy stamps in Palau because the post office is the only place that sells them and closes by 4:30. By the time you finish diving and get a ride out to the main strip it’s always past 4:30. For mailing out postcards we ultimately asked the hotel receptionist to help mail it for us. She charged us a premium of $0.10 or $0.20 cents per stamp but we really had no choice. It’s a good idea though. If you’re ever in a jam to find stamps and out of time, just ask the hotel and they might just be willing to do it for you.
- On a small island like this sometimes it’s interesting just to check out some of the other hotels and walk around. They usually have their own gift shops and restaurants that could be worthwhile.
- The package we got from Sam’s Tours didn’t include Chandelier Cave but it is something definitely worthwhile if you’re looking to book with Sam’s Tours. Not end of the world if you didn’t buy it beforehand as it can be easily arranged during your trip to Palau since it’s right by the shop.
- Vinegar is apparently a great antiseptic particularly for coral wounds. Burns like a mother though.
- Here is what you need to know about the JR Pass
- JR Pass is so key. We really appreciated having it throughout the trip and missed it when it expired.
- You have to buy the JR pass outside of Japan so there’s a bit of planning involved and you get to choose between 7 and 14 days.
- The best way to buy it is locally at a local travel agency that is on this list but make sure you call them in advance because I got screwed once in China already when the JAL travel desk only sold JR passes to people that purchased flights with them.
- When you buy a JR pass you’re really just buying a voucher. You have to exchange this at an airport or main train station for the real JR pass which then becomes active the day you do this exchange.
- Reservations are not necessary and with the JR pass you can literally just take your pass, show the gate attendant (you always have to go through this person at any station) and then find the non reserved seating cars or if it’s a subway just get on. You can get reservations for free with the JR pass and I would recommend to do this a day in advance if you’re taking the shinkansen, want to guarantee a seat and want to sit together.
- Make sure to read more about the JR Pass.
- You’re not quite invincible when you have a JR pass. Bottom line is the JR pass only works for JR related lines. Shinkansen wise you can ride any Shinkansen except for Nozomi, Mizuho trains since these are faster. Local city wise JR pass typically doesn’t cover any local buses or subways so expect to dish out some money take these. If you’re lucky like in Tokyo and Osaka, there are JR subway lines that operate with and around the local subway lines that you can take for free. It is a bit annoying that not all the subways are run under one company but that’s just the way it is here. In Tokyo sometimes the JR subway line is faster to take you where you want to go and sometimes the local subway line.
- If there’s one site you need to know when travelling with a JR pass is Hyperdia. First of all it’s English friendly so no need to decode it. This is an excellent page to figure out the train schedules and since you know the Japanese railway system runs like clockwork you don’t need to worry about whether it’ll be early or late. I used this on many occasions during the trip to figure out the most effective trains to take to get from point A to B. For example when going from Kyoto to Hiroshima most of the itineraries involved a transfer in Osaka which would waste time. I played around with different departure times and eventually found a direct Shinkansen that ran from Kyoto to Osaka and then to Hiroshima. No transfer required = less time = more sleep on the train.
- ATM’s – If you have a foreign debit card like I did, you’re going to run into problems withdrawing from normal legit bank ATM’s. For some reason these machines don’t take foreign cards. The only machine that worked for me the entire trip was the 7-Eleven. This one worked all the time. So don’t worry…your card didn’t get locked. It’s the bank’s problem. Just go over to any 7-Eleven which won’t be hard to find and you’ll be good to go.
If you’re looking to do any travelling around Japan, I highly recommend picking up a JRailPass. Keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase it before your trip and ship it to your home.
- Need baggage delivery service? Find Yamato either at the airport or anywhere in major cities to get it done. Fast, simple and reliable. You can either use this service to ship bags from the airport to a city ahead of you so you don’t have to lug it around while taking the train. You can also do what I did and ship my larger luggage piece to my last destination in Japan.
- Tsukiji Fish Market
- The bottom line is you have to wake up really early to even make it to the tuna auction. They recently changed the rules so that only 120 people area allowed in each day split over two time slots (5:25AM and 5:50AM). The second time we went to the fish market we made it there just after 4AM and we were already #78 and #79. The experience is quite worth it but you’ll see the details in one of my last blogs from Tokyo.
- Also make sure you make it to the restaurants there. Sushi Dai and Daiwa are the go-to places but expect to line up. If you failed at going to the auction you might as well go straight to the restaurants.
- Seafood Intermediate Wholesaler’s Area – This place is only open after 9AM to 11AM. It’s also worth it to do this section if you time everything well. It’s pretty interesting to see the comings and goings of fishermen, shop owners and fresh seafood.
- AGAIN, if you want to do the tuna auction make sure you get there by 4AM. This is no longer a hidden gem and they’ve restricted it to 120 per day so if you only have chance to try this make it count and go early. You’ll be damn tired but the experience is totally worth it. You won’t see anything like this anywhere else.
- Restaurant reservations – For a lot of the well known restaurants in Tokyo it’s important to make reservations a day in advance. We did this for the entire trip and didn’t run into any problems (except when we were late).
- Harajuku is a must-visit area of Tokyo. Tons of fun. You will not be disappointed.
- Hato Bus – Locals use it to take visitors around the city and tourists use it too. This is the company you want to go with if you want high quality tours that don’t cost a great deal but take you to main attractions and places you never would have gone to if you were on your own. You also save the hassle of figuring out the public transportation and so you can have a more carefree day on the bus and following a guide. What makes it a great deal is that it also comes with a fantastic lunch.
- If you’re planning on taking a Hato Bus make sure you plan around those itinerary items so you don’t re-do anything.
- If you want to go up a free building, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the one you want to go to. I wouldn’t highly recommend it because of limited views and it being an older building but free is free right?
- If there’s one shrine you want to go to in Tokyo, I would recommend Meiji Shrine. My #2 would probably be the one in Asakusa.
- Gonpachi is a must-do restaurant in Tokyo. Make reservations! It’s the restaurant that inspired the restaurant scene in Kill Bill.
- If you want to see Lolita girls in Harajuku make sure you go on the weekend.
- Shabusen was on my friend’s list of restaurants but out of everything we tried I think we were the most disappointed with this one so you can probably skip it.
- Odaiba – I wouldn’t exactly recommend Odaiba to first time visitors of Tokyo but I can see it being a cool area to hang out as more of a local for shopping and entertainment arcades. I saw some tour groups in the area but honestly there are better places to spend your time.
- Hotels are not the easiest to find in Japan but Hostel 64 Osaka was recommended by my Japanese friend and it sure was a winner. Highly recommended. It has many of the hostel qualities but out of all hostels I have ever stayed at this has to be #1.
- Come to Osaka for the food. There’s just so many options here and things seem more accessible here than Tokyo.
- Without seeing any of Osaka I can’t really say whether Nara was better than Osaka or not but it’s definitely a side trip worth doing. The deer experience alone made it worthwhile.
- Definitely try out a ryokan while you’re in Kyoto. For something on the budget side of things Ryokan Shimizu is perfect. It’s clean, it has it’s own en-suite bathroom and is close to transportation. Get the ryokan experience for a fraction of the cost.
- You can easily spend a full day in the Higashiyama Area and I would highly recommend it if you have 2 days to work with.
- In planning this day in Kyoto one thing I knew I wanted to do was put Fushimi Inari at the end of the day. What you’re realize with temples/shrines/castles etc. in Japan is that most of them close around 4PM-5PM. For a tight day like ours and not wanting to run the risk of being shut out of any places it made sense to do the castles/temples/shrines earlier and then do Fushimi Inari at the end because that is the only place that actually doesn’t have a closing time.
- For the photographers out there, Fushimi Inari is absolutely stunning for photos. I wasn’t so sure they’d turn out well but I’m happy with a lot of my shots.
- Photography at Miyajima – One thing that people said about photographing Miyajima and the floating torii was that you have to decide whether you want to shoot it with the tide up or down. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing when I wanted to go so this was a non-factor for me but if you want to shoot it at high tide go in the morning. If you want to see it at low tide and be able to walk right up to the gate you want to be there in the late afternoon. Of course the time of the year also matters but I believe the tide trend should stay the same.
- Hiroshima is definitely something not to miss if you’re going to be in the Osaka region. Even if you’re not a WWII history buff, the A-bomb stuff is thoroughly interesting and of course Miyajima is beautiful.
- The A-bomb stuff can easily be done in half a day so if you have a FULL day in Hiroshima you can easily do both A-bomb and Miyajima.
- Hakone Free Pass – If you’re going to be going to Hakone and going to do the round-the-city tour like we did, this is the one to get. 5000 JPY can’t be beat. Get an earlier start than we did and in one day you can pretty much see all the main sights and activities in Hakone.
- You don’t’ necessarily have to go to Hakone for hot springs as there are a lot of good ones in Tokyo and in other cities nearby so do your research. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji since we weren’t heading there on our own so this seemed to make the most sense.
- Hot Springs – Do your research beforehand and if you’re not sure ask your concierge if you have any questions or get them to call the places themselves to get the answers. Couple hot springs room are rare in Hakone anyways. Tenzan had them available but they are only available for 2 hour slots and you can only reserve them when you are on-site. There are only 3 or 4 of these type of rooms but you only get one temperature hot spring pool and that’s it. We figured that this would be too tight for us and we’d lose out on the true Japanese hot spring experience.
- Priceline – Heading back to North America, I knew it was time to take advantage of Priceline again. On average I got my Vancouver hotels for about 70USD a night which is really good. Even the Sheraton hotel manager told me that the rate I got from Priceline is the lowest it gets. Learning how to use the Priceline bid yourself system is a topic for another day but if you want to know the tricks, ask me. It’s the only way I go when booking hotels. Need a simplified version of Priceline?
- Keep in mind that the only downfall of getting a hotel near the airport is that you’ll most likely have to pay for parking so weigh that into your costs.
- Bubble Queen – As mentioned above, this place is a must-visit if you’re a bubble tea lover like myself. It’s located in Richmond (8888 Odlin Cres though this may have changed as they did recently change units)
- Fable Kitchen – One of Henry’s picks but an excellent one. The steak I had was the best I’ve had all year. Fills up quickly so make sure you make reservations. Tons of good food along this street (1944 W 4th Ave)
- Bella Gelateria – Best gelato in the world potentially. Read this article to see the proof of why Bella Geleteria is the best gelato in the world.
- Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge – Hands down better than Capilano for the fact that it’s free and less crowded. You can’t go wrong.
- Grouse Grind – not for the faint of heart. It’s not an easy hike up by any stretch so be prepared and stay hydrated. Start early in the day to avoid the afternoon heat. Parking wise there’s a free lot on the right side as you’re coming in. It’s not paved. You’ll spot it really easily.
- Paragliding cost $229 at Grouse Mountain and would have been a fun experience if I actually got to do it but sadly I can’t say too much about it since they cancelled on me. I guess just don’t be expected if that happens because safety really is dependent on how the wind conditions are the day of.
- Deep Cove – beautiful place to spend an afternoon. If you want to do kayaking at the main shop make sure you make reservations beforehand as they were all booked when I showed up late in the afternoon.
- Sweet Revenge is a tiny dessert shop but is the kind of place I wish we had in Toronto. Great place to lounge and awesome desserts of course.
- Highly recommend Spanish Banks in the summer. It’s way better than Ashbridges Bay which is one of the free things you can do in Toronto. Fantastic views and great for hanging out.
- Nexus Pass – In short, yes the Nexus Pass is worth it in my opinion even if you’re not travelling to the US that often. It’s only $50 and is valid for 5 years.
- Tulalip Premium Outlets – Still one of my favorite outlets in the US. I always seem to be able to buy stuff here. If you’re ever in Vancouver or Seattle, this is the one to shop at.