How to Plan a Trip to Japan
“Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.” -A.A. Milne
I spent six months planning my trip to Japan. Not only did those six months leave me ample time to research the country, rank attractions, and study Japanese culture, they also inflated me with the joy of anticipation--its own joy, distinct from the trip itself. (A trip actually starts the moment you book your flight, not the moment you board it.)
Case in point: my complete Japlanning timeline. An adventure unto itself:
SIX MONTHS OUT:
Book round trip flights to Tokyo. Don't bother considering flying to another major city like Osaka, even if it makes sense with your itinerary. You don't have an itinerary yet! Tokyo is never a bad idea. Redeem those miles. Make it real. YOU'RE GOING TO JAPAN!
6-4 MONTHS OUT:
Devour Japan guidebooks and begin charting your course. Commence obsessing about the Spring cherry blossom forecast. Ogle luxury ryokan that charge exorbitant rates for experiences you hardly understand. Boost your zen vocabulary; gather definitions for "Zazen," "Shikantaza," and "Rinzai." Realize your newfound knowledge is useless because you still haven't even decided how to split your time between Tokyo and Kyoto, or if you have enough time to explore the Japan Alps. But hey, at least you've got five guidebooks that all say the same things in different ways.
4-3 MONTHS OUT:
You should actually be planning your trip now. Start solidifying your itinerary. Allot enough time (~4 days) to get totally lost in Kyoto. And convert to Buddhism (wait, what?). Consider the diversity of Japanese accommodation: from traditional inns to chain hotels, to capsule hotels, hostels, temples, castles or mountain huts. Remember to be concerned about the cherry blossoms. They could already be blooming, in which case you would have to cancel your trip and hang your vintage Ichiro jersey in shame. Nevermore!
3-2 MONTHS OUT:
Your basic itinerary should be finalized by now. Start thinking about transportation between cities (simple: get a Japan Rail pass; you can buy an exchange order no sooner than three months before your arrival date). Begin finalizing accommodation. Use booking.com to reserve way too many hotels simply because you can cancel them for free later, and you can't make up your mind yet. Ask Siri to remind you the day before the cancellation penalty goes from zero to "Faauucckk." The last thing you want is to pay double for a tatami mat in Takayama and a non-smoking room at the Hilton Shinjuku. The bullet trains aren't that fast.
8-3 WEEKS OUT:
Become an encyclopedia of Japan. Buy nine more guide books. Read them all cover to cover. Highlight so much that the unhighlighted parts become the important parts. Create a color-coded Google Sheet; share the sheet with anyone who cares. No one cares? Get them to care with casual and barely relevant allusions to Truman Capote, Sofia Coppola, et al. Research specific shops and restaurants you simply must see. Break down attractions by neighborhood and create daily itineraries. Stay up til 4 a.m. trying to book a whiskey tour at the Suntory Yamazaki factory before it sells out. Practice asking for your favorite sushi. Read a novel by Haruki Murakami. Check the yen to-dollar conversation rate again. Realize you can't actually afford to go to Japan at all unless you slurp ramen too often and don't drink any sake (which would be a bigger travesty than the fact that you own The Last Samurai on Blu-ray).
3 WEEKS - 3 DAYS OUT
Pack! Buy four 128 GB memory cards (even that might not be enough storage space) and start choosing copyright-free music for the Japan movie you haven't yet made about the trip you haven't yet taken. Blame global warming for the fact that the cherry blossoms have already peaked. Deal with it. Re-watch Lost in Translation. Spray your shoes with heavy-duty water repellant. Print your documents. Pretend you're going to become proficient in Japanese in two weeks; download three apps to further deceive yourself. Remember that Google Translate is omniscient, like God. Say funny things to Big G and see how they sound in Japanese. Buy stuff on Amazon because you can, so why wouldn't you? Regret your purchases and return the goods right away, except for the Olympus 25mm f1.8 because that's a sick lens.
3 DAYS OUT
Write a blog post to settle down. Count your socks and underwear. Practice taking off your shoes quickly without untying them. Close your eyes. Meditate. Think of something to call that feeling before Pooh eats his honey. Give up, because it can't be named.