Trip Tips: Reservations

Welcome to a newly created series on this blog. I’ve long been kicking around the idea of doing some how-to posts for travelers (namely on buying Japan rail or local transportation passes, figuring out the train system, renting a cell phone, etc). Working with some of my recent clients has brought even more pressing issues to my attention and the one I want to discuss today is reservations.

“No reservations” might be Anthony Bourdain’s travel mantra but frankly, that policy won’t get you terribly far in Japan. That garden you want to visit, that restaurant you saw on TV and want to try, that mountain you want to climb … nearly all of these will be impossible without quite a bit of advance planning. Japan is an aging population and its most active travelers are its seniors – that means that at any given time, half of the country is out and about, spending its pension in just the places you want to be as well.

So how do you know when places are more likely to be busy/crowded? Weekends are obviously worse than weekdays but for specific days, here a few simple questions to ask yourself as you start planning your trip:

  • Does my trip fall over a Japanese public holiday? Three day weekends are music to the ears of the Japanese and many city dwellers head for the hills – literally – on the many three days weekends in the autumn. As for long holidays like Golden Week (April 29th – May 5th) and Obon (usually around August 13th-15th), expect traffic snarls, packed trains and crowds EVERYWHERE.
  • Does my trip fall over a Japanese festival? While these can be fabulous events to witness (like Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri or Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri), they also tend to mean a lack of accommodation or the driving up of prices. If you’re aim is to be around while a festival is going on, make sure you lock in your accommodation months in advance.
  • Does my trip fall at a “seasonably desirable time”? Ah, how better to phrase the Japanese obsession (and admittedly my own) with the seasonal changes of this island nation. Cherry blossom time (late March-early April) and autumn are peak travel seasons in Japan and places that are known for their pink petals or maple leaves are mobbed at this time. Expect massive crowds in Kyoto and the Japan Alps, but even more famous local spots will see an influx of visitors.

Once you answered those questions, then you can get down to the nitty gritty.

  • Do you want to hike Mt Fuji? You can only do so in July and August and – as I have discovered this week, to my dismay – June is actually too late to make a reservation for the mountain huts. Yes, a few weekdays are still available but most huts are fully booked for July and most of August already; it’s best to call them soon after they start accepting reservations in April.
  • Do you have a special restaurant in mind? Many traditional restaurants in Japan are short on seating – some may have only a long counter which fits a maximum of 10 or 12. For kaiseki meals lasting on average 60-120 minutes, that may mean only two dozen or so people get to eat there that night. And restaurants that have been written up on blogs, in guides, and highlighted by the Japanese and foreign media definitely require a reservation. Some even have plans in place that open up reservations for seats on the 1st of the month and they often book up within hours or a day or two. If a certain eatery is on your bucket list, allow for plenty of time and the possibility of disappointment, or pay the high price to stay in a luxury hotel with a concierge that has some clout. 🙂
  • Do you want to visit the Imperial Palace (Tokyo or Kyoto), take a tour of the fish market or experience a tea ceremony? It’s not impossible to show up in country and arrange these experiences on the fly. But some of the guides or experiences I recommend (like cooking courses, for example) are both limited in numbers AND gaining in popularity. I recommend these experiences for a reason – I’ve tried them personally and found them to be worth your time. But if you want to be assured of experiencing them yourself, an advance reservation is the way to go.

Need help with reservations? I offer reservation assistance with both my Samurai Itineraries and my consultation services. I’ll happily make calls on your behalf to try to get you the trip of your dreams. But I’m not a miracle worker – though I wish I was! – so if you have certain requests, leave plenty of time for them to be fulfilled.


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