The ethereal beauty of a cherry tree in full blossom tugs at the heart of even the most cynical ones among us. Despite the heavy tourist footfall during the cherry blossom, or Sakura, season, this is a must-see if Japan is on your bucket list. And no, the trip wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg, if you plan ahead.
Here’s how I managed to bring back fond memories of Japan and its epic cherry blossoms.
Before setting out Japan, I pulled out a tourist map of the country and pored over stories of fellow travellers and backpackers to chalk out a tentative route map. Initially, my travel companions and I planned to spend 16 days covering the main Honshu island, a bit of Hokkaido (island in the north), and also the beautiful Kyushu island in the south. However, we had to drop Kyushu from our itinerary to shorten the duration of stay and remain within budget. We left Kyushu, and its stunning Onsen island, for an autumn visit at a later date. We also discovered that the onward flight from India to Osaka and return flight to India from New Chitose airport in Hokkaido was far more reasonably priced than any other international flight combinations. We looked up sakura predictions in the main cities and towns of Honshu to firm up our itinerary as well as the departure dates.
And, get, set, go!
One fine morning in late March, we landed in the beautiful Kansai international airport. Built on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay in Japan’s Osaka Prefecture (Japan has 47 prefectures or administrative divisions), the airport itself is a tourist spot. The scene that unfolded from the aircraft window at the time of touch-down was simply breathtaking!
Our first task after completing immigration was to get our data sim cards. Data sims can be very useful in a country like Japan where you will hardly find any English-speaking local, except for a few in Tokyo city. Thanks to google map and google translator, we could more or less manage to travel independently without getting lost. There were plenty of options at the arrival lounge and we settled for JAL ABC. Armed with fully charged local sim cards, we were all set for our adventure in the land of the rising sun (or nihon in Japanese). Next on our agenda was to activate our 7-day rail passes against the vouchers we had purchased back in India (JR pass vouchers – with a validity period of 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days – can* only be purchased outside Japan. It is not for sale within the country). Japan Railways offer passes to non-residents that allow free travel in JR and partner trains, Shinkansen “bullet” trains (except on Nozomi and Mizuho trains), and buses operating on JR lines throughout the country. Luckily, the pass was also valid on JR-West Miyajima ferry that we took on Day 5.
(*Note: From June 1, 2020, JR Pass can be reserved online here. However, you need to carry a printout of the voucher for exchange at JR counters across the country.)
Following the signs at the airport, we reached the JR office near the JR rail station inside the airport complex without breaking a sweat. However, looking at the long queue we knew it would need every ounce of our patience after the long overnight flight from home. It was sakura season after all! After about 40 minutes, we found ourselves standing in front of a ticketing counter. The girl handed us six forms to fill. We filled in our names, travel duration, and date of activation of the pass (we decided to activate it on Day 5) and went back to the counter with our passport-size photos along with the forms. Minutes later our passes were in our hands. We also decided to purchase ICOCA card, a smart card that can be used nationwide. By topping up this rechargeable card at any of the JR counters at the station, you can save time queuing up for tickets at various mass transit systems like buses, streetcars, metro and subway trains.
We headed to the JR station to catch the next train to Shin-Osaka where we had booked our hostel. Kansai airport is well-connected to Osaka city by rapid and express trains.
On exiting Shin-Osaka station after a 35-min train ride, we kept looking for the cherry blossoms, but were surprised to find none around. The trees were barely showing early buds. We didn’t lose hope though, as we had almost 2 weeks ahead of us to soak in the beauty of these flowers. After a few false starts, we finally reached our hostel (Shin-Osaka Youth Hostel), thanks to a helpful local teenager with whom we managed to converse using google translator. We realized Google maps didn’t work so well on flyovers and over-bridges (sigh!). Later in the evening, we set out to explore the area for some mouth-watering udon, the quintessential Japanese noodle soup. Soon we settled in a cozy family-run restaurant and enjoyed our first real meal of the day.
While our first day in Japan went just the way we expected, would also like to add that in case you are not looking forward to taking your first bath in the country in a public bath with several other guests, choose your accommodation carefully and make some enquiries about the shower/bath facilities. For an outsider, especially an Indian, it is quite understandable to find it difficult to shed all inhibitions and share a public bath from Day 1. As we were quite unaware of this when we booked our hostel, it was indeed quite embarrassing for us to accept this ‘norm’ as there was no private shower available for guests, except for a single cubicle meant for showering before heading for the public bath!
Equipped with JR pass, ICOCA card, and google maps, our tour of Japan was more or less effortless and extremely enjoyable. Always remember, when heading to a country where the majority of the population does not speak English, the only way to enjoy the place without any unpleasant episodes is to do some research on the points of interest and find out the most economical and fastest way to reach them.
Our first destination in Japan was Kyoto. Catch up on my experiences in this erstwhile capital of Japan to get some valuable travel tips.