We learned many travel lessons as we planned our trip and lived it day to day. We used information from the internet together with some second-hand, out of date travel books. Added to this we got advice from the hotels we stayed in as well as the city tourist departments.
Apart from a one-day tour in to the Great Wall in Beijing and the odd city hop-on-hop-off bus we arranged all the sightseeing ourselves ... and walked a lot!
It went well. There were hiccups but these were overcome without any serious consequences.
We underestimated the average daily costs in both China and Japan. Mainly due to the cost of sightseeing and admission fees into sightseeing attractions.
China is milking tourism. Whereas Japan is quite reasonably priced and even sometimes free.
Visit our site to get more details of the places we visited and our impressions and views.
Travelling Apps and Data
The best solution is to buy a data SIM in each country. It’s no hassle swapping SIM’s in and out and they offer the best deals. Important: make sure that you are connected to the internet before leaving the shop.
Travelling apps are essential. Many require data outside of a WiFi zone so you need the local data SIM to get online. Carry a separate phone with your country SIM as at times you may need to verify access to a site or use it to access your home bank account.
There are a number of sites offering multi-country SIM solutions but they are expensive. Roaming from your home country is usually ridiculously expensive.
The data only SIM’s we used were: China Mobile in China, Freetel in Japan, Digi in Malaysia, Viettel in Vietnam, Cellcard in Cambodia, Unitel in Laos and Ooredoo in Myanmar. Some also included a limited number of call minutes and SMS’s but they were never significant. These were all bought from the official outlets as buying them off the “street” you are likely to be ripped off.
A concern to many travellers is not being able to communicate with the locals. This is easily overcome with either Google Translate or another app that I used was Speak and Translate.
Looking for deals and options is a time consuming, arduous and sometimes frustrating process. Flight specials, hotel specials, best areas (when you have no clue where they are), reviews and advertisements all have their own challenge.
Be aware of school holidays, national holidays (long weekends), school half-term holidays, annual vacations as well as the “tourist seasons” as these can have a big impact on availability and price.
These have been hard to keep ... easy to underestimate. Using the Trail Wallet app I recorded expenses as they occurred and did them by country and type of expense.
These will be available some time in the future!
Register for sites like Agoda, TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Trip.com and Homestay.com and AirBnB. Book as early as possible to get the best places and as late as possible for deals!
The apps we used included Skyscanner, Google Flights and in Asia Trip.com which also covers accommodation and we used it for train bookings in China.
My go-to is Google Maps but was referred to Maps.me as another good resource. Maps.me is an offline option and requires downloading a country, or section of a country, map ... remember to download it before you arrive
On occasions we used Foursquare and Yelp to find a place to eat or have coffee.
The train systems in China and Japan are fantastic. The bullet trains are comfortable, reliable, fast and reasonably priced ... I used the travel time on these to try and keep my writing up to date.
Our longest trip in China was from Hangzhou to Guilin (about 8 hours) and our longest in Japan from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Even with stops and changing train lines the average speed for this journey was over 200kph … with one section nearly 250kph.
In China the train system is newer, more direct and easy to understand. In Japan although JR is the biggest and most widespread there are many private railway lines. This can be challenging to the first time traveller ... actually challenging for any traveller and also many Japanese!!
One aspect that can be confusing in both countries is that the kanji’s are hard to read, the station names are hard to pronounce and some names are similar. One solution is to take a photograph of the rail network and follow it on your phone.
Our main transport through Japan was using a JR Rail pass. These are available for 7, 14 or 21 days and can be used on most JR Trains (the essential app with this pass is Hyperdia). As we were in Japan for 26 days we also bought a PASMO card which can be used in most metros, some buses and various other train lines like the Kintetsu in Kyoto.
In Kyoto we used a one-day bus pass from the Tourist Office. It was very good value and the routes covered all the main sites and attractions.
In China they are new and are easy to work out.
Japan’s systems are far older, owned by multiple operators and more complicated. But the Hyperdia app will sort out any confusion regarding which train, which time and which platform. Both China's and Japan's services have announcements and signs in English.
If you are not part of a packaged tour … be selective and take it slowly! There is no pleasure in rushing from place to place just racking up the pictures.
It's probable that at some stage you'll get “templed out” or “shrined out” as you visit so many – this seems to be a common malaise with many tourists we met! So be selective.
Depending on your trip and the weather don’t try and do too much in a day. It is tiring and getting around often takes longer than planned.
Scams and Security
We were scammed in Beijing when we drew money from an ATM in the airport (10 fake Y100 notes). After taking money from an ATM (ideally at a time when the bank is open) check the notes and immediately report anything suspicious.
Generally, the level of crime and danger published by western embassies is over dramatized. Be careful and aware in China in many ways it’s a 3rd world country with lots of scams and petty crime.
Personal security is not a concern in Japan. For example on a train in Japan my wife dropped her iPhone on a seat as we were transferring coaches. Within minutes of arriving at our destination she realised that she didn’t have her phone. She then went into the lost property office and the agent was holding it. It had been picked up and handed in within minutes!!
After just over 2 months in China and Japan we had learned a lot of travel lessons but as we continued our journey there were still more travel "school fees" to be paid.