One of the biggest perks of the JET program is the opportunity it provides to explore Japan and the rest of Asia.
As most JETs receive (20) days of paid vacation per year, there is ample time to take advantage of Japan’s excellent railway system or the proximity of many fascinating Asian countries. While it is important to utilize this opportunity whenever possible, please be mindful of the expectations of your workplace and remember that every situation is different.
Just because a fellow JET in a neighboring town may have a very lenient BoE when it comes to traveling, do not expect your BOE/supervisor to share the same attitude. To get a better understanding of your likely situation speak to your predecessor (if available) about procedures or allowances for travel from your BoE.
Taking Leave From Work
Remember – every situation is different – always talk to your supervisor and fellow teachers well in advance of taking time off, especially if you are planning on taking time off while school is in session – this is often discouraged and can be looked down upon if not handled correctly.
Some workplaces will only allow you to take vacations during school vacations (i.e. spring vacation, summer vacation, etc.) – so please talk to them before you book your plane ticket!
Types of Leave
Nenkyu: Yearly/Annual Leave
Most JETs get 20 days paid vacation. Unused vacation can be carried over to the next calendar year in some situations (usually up to a maximum of 12 days).
You do not use nenkyu (or daikyu) during official public holidays (Golden Week, New Years, etc.)
Daikyu: Replacement/Substitute Leave
This is granted to some JET’s in lieu of overtime pay. This is typically granted if you are required to work on the weekend or during holidays – usually in the case of athletic, school open days, or culture festivals.
This is granted by the discretion of your workplace, usually in conjunction with a language study program or other seminars.
A cluster of public holidays during the end of April/start of May. Depending on how the calendar is arranged, there may be one or two days during that week that are not designated holidays. Some schools might require you to come in and teach; some may be forgiving and let you use your nenkyu to get a full series of vacation in. Talk to your supervisor. Some years are particularly “unlucky” when Golden Week public holidays are on the weekend and may not be substituted with a weekday. Flights and hotels (especially in Japan) will often be expensive during this period.
A week long holiday period during August (no official holiday, but during the school’s summer holiday), during which many teachers will take off to either visit their family or travel. Your teachers or supervisors may encourage you to use your nenkyu/daikyu during this period. Flights and hotels (especially in Japan) can be expensive during this period.
Japanese New Years is a lot like our winter holiday season, as many people will travel to be with their family. There will be a few days that will be public holidays (December 23th and January 1st), though your school/BoE may have other official closures as well. School will be on vacation during this period and you may be encouraged to use your nenkyu/daikyu during this period. Flights and hotels, as expected, will be expensive during this period.
There are many other smaller public holidays during the year that can often align on a Friday or Monday to make for a three-day weekend. These are great times to take smaller trips within Japan, though international travel is possible. Look in advance and plan accordingly!
Your schools will close for summer, spring, and winter holidays. During these times the students will not have class, but teachers are still expected to be at school, though these are generally the times that teachers will use their nenkyu if they need to. Some JETs will go to their BoE instead of the school during this period. If your supervisor and school(s) are okay with it, this is a great time to use your nenkyu.
Note: While all of these are great times to travel, you may be missing out on some great events or festivals in your home city!
Travel In Japan
There are many airports within Japan and most destinations within Japan can be reached via plane. However, please note that air travel in Japan (especially domestic travel) can be extremely expensive (though budget carriers do fly to many destination in Japan.
Local / Express Rail
This includes all rail travel except the shinkansen (bullet train), and while cheaper than air travel or shinkansen, these trains take a lot of time. For the very brave, there is a type of rail pass (seishunjyuuhachikippu) available during certain seasons which allow you unlimited ride on local/express (but not reserved express or shinkansen) trains for a set number of days. This can be a great way to see Japan if you have the patience and endurance to sit on trains for days at a time.
Japan’s famous bullet trains. These trains can be expensive, but are extremely fast and incredibly convenient. Trip time between Tokyo and Osaka can be as fast as two hours. There are different ‘types’ of Shinkansen as well – some make only a few stops to larger destinations (Nozomi, Hikari), while there are ‘slower’ shinkansen trains (Kodama) that will make stops at much smaller locales.
Highway Bus / Overnight Bus
Another option that is idea for reaching destinations in the mountains that may not have rail access. You may save some money by taking the bus versus taking the train, but it is often negligible.
Hokkaido – Known for its skiing and the annual snow festival (Yukimatsuri), Hokkaido can also be a great destination during the summer. Top spots: Sapporo, Hakodate (port town across from Honshu, (Furano (Lavender farms and skiing)), Noboribetsu Onsen (Hokkaido’s largest onsen), Lake Toya (site of the G8 Summit), Wakkanai (northern most point of Japan, views of Russian Sakhalin.)
Kansai – Just a short bullet train ride from Tokyo, the Kansai area contains such popular destinations as Osaka (Okonomiyaki and Shinsaibashi), Kobe (port town and site of Koshien – Japan’s high-school baseball tournament), Kyoto (many beautiful temples and shrines), and Nara (More ancient temples and lots of deer).
Okinawa – Japan’s version of Hawaii – tropical islands situated between Kyushu and Taiwan. Air travel is easiest though there are ferries out there as well. Interesting mix of Japanese, Ryukyu, and American culture (largely due to the massive US military presence on the main island.) Venture out to some of the smaller islands for amazing beaches.
Shikoku – The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku provides some breathtaking scenery in the Iya Valley and boasts some of Japan’s best surfing. Shikoku is best traveled by car.
Kyushu – Japan’s southern-most main island. Home to Japan’s best ramen (tonkotsu) and amazing hot springs (Beppu, Kagoshima.) Nagasaki boasts a wonderful Chinatown and also a sobering memorial to the devastation brought on by the atomic bomb. Check out Fukuoka for its great nightlife or try to get on the US Navy base in Sasebo to get some Taco Bell or shop at the American supermarket (hint: make friends with servicemen/women or Japanese who work on the base to let you on.)
Kanto – Visit the bright lights of Tokyo but don’t forget to visit the old seat of the Japanese government in Kamakura. Stop in Yokohama to enjoy Chinese steamed buns or travel out to Hakone and soak in the majestic beauty of Mt. Fuji from an outdoor hot spring.
Hotels – Usually expensive, especially during peaks times. Best to book far in advance to guarantee availability and lowest rates.
Business Hotels – Cheaper than hotels, accommodations can be particularly small. Ideal for traveling alone. Can be pricey, especially if not booked in advance.
Capsule Hotels – worth staying at once for the novelty of it, but not very comfortable and most often do not allow female guests. If you’ve missed last train home, this can be an option to rest at while waiting for first train, but can be (surprisingly) expensive.
Manga/Internet Café’s – Cheap option, and much better than capsule hotels if you are just waiting for first train. Often you will get your own room with an exposed ceiling (almost like a cubicle), a computer and often pillows. Some will offer showers and food.
Love Hotels – worth going at least once for the novelty. Cannot be booked in advance, but are great as a backup plan if you are in desperate need of a place to stay. Can be extremely expensive, especially in popular areas.
Ryokan – These traditional Japanese hotels offer you an authentic Japanese experience. You will most likely be sleeping on futons in a shared room. They may have an attached onsen and often prepare amazing food. Please note that many of these Ryokan’s have a curfew and are not ideal if you plan on staying out late. Great if you have friends or family coming to visit.
Temples – It is possible to stay at a Buddhist temple for a night(s). Please note you will be expected to follow all protocol and will most likely be woken up extremely early to partake in rituals.
Travel out of Japan
Residents Card – Please make sure you have your card! This gets you back in to the country!
Travel Visas – Many countries in Asia do not require you to get a visa prior to traveling; however there are some countries that require a visa and sometimes travel itineraries and hotel booking confirmations as well. Countries of note that require Americans to apply for and obtain a visa before arrival: Vietnam, China (PRC), Russia, Myanmar, and India among others. These visas can be expensive, so please keep that in mind when budgeting. Visas can be obtained through a travel agent or by contacting the embassy/consulate directly.
Some embassies/consulates may require you to apply in person, while others may allow you to apply via post. Remember, if you do not obtain a visa for a country that requires one before you arrive, you run the risk of being immediately deported back to Japan. I have seen this happen before. Countries that DO NOT require visas prior to arrival (for US citizens): South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia. There may be others but these are ones I can confirm from firsthand experience. Check your country’s embassy websites for specific information about whether you need a visa or not.
Contact Information – It is very wise to leave contact information (hotels, etc.) as well as a brief itinerary with flight info with your supervisor before you leave. International travel makes your supervisor the most anxious as it is their greatest fear that something goes wrong while you are in a foreign country and this can go a long way in smoothing things over. They will often have a form you can fill out with emergency contact details.
South Korea – The most accessible and ‘familiar’ country to Japan, South Korea is a very easy place to visit for a long weekend or a shorter vacation. There are many great sights and Koreans speak English remarkably well. Everything is a bit cheaper than in Japan, and flights to Seoul can often be quicker/cheaper than flights to other parts of Japan. Enjoy the incredible food and bustling nightlife of Seoul or jump on the (extremely cheap) Korean version of the Shinkansen (KTX) to points south. Pusan, on the southern tip of South Korea, is also accessible via high-speed ferry from Fukuoka.
People’s Republic of China – The seat of Civilization, China offers visitors many historic sights on the Eastern coast – from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square to the Terracotta Warriors in Xian. The bustling metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong offer great shopping bargains and superb nightlife. For the more adventurous, travel out west to Tibet or to the Muslim markets in Urumqi.
Mongolia – Enjoy breathtaking scenery in the summer and frigid temperatures in the winter. Find ger camps where you can ride tanks or shoot rockets. Enough said.
Cambodia – The Angkor Wat palace is not to be missed if you plan on visiting South East Asia
Vietnam – Spend a night on a skiff in Haolong Bay or devour bowls of delicious Pho in the storefront noodle shops of Hanoi.
Singapore/Malaysia – Take a break from Asian languages and muster a sigh of relief as everyone in Singapore speaks English. Enjoy the eclectic mix of cultures and cuisine in Singapore or take a train up through Malaysia to hit some fantastic beaches and dine on amazing curry.
Thailand – Great beaches but has been run over by tourists in recent years. If you want a Cancun experience, go to Thailand. If you want to experience culture and history I would recommend Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos instead.
Top Five Mistakes Foreign Travelers Make in Japan
Leaving Japan Without Your Residents Card – DO NOT FORGET THIS!! You will need to present your Residents Card every time your leave and enter Japan when traveling. You’ll experience the hospitality of Japan’s immigration and border security system if you don’t.
Not Carrying Identification (Domestic Travel) – Carry your Residents Card or Passport with you at all times. Japan is like Arizona – they can ask you to provide identification on the spot. You will not have a good time if you are stopped and don’t have identification. Remember, the identification HAS to be either your Residents Card or Passport. Japanese or American driver’s license will not suffice.
Not Having Enough Cash – Japan is a cash society – credit cards are used, but not accepted everywhere – this is especially true in the more rural areas. It is also very difficult to obtain a Japanese credit card as a foreigner. If you do not have a credit card in the US, I would strongly urge you to apply for one before going to Japan. It will be useful for emergencies and also while traveling abroad. That being said, it is not uncommon to be carrying around $200 ~ $500 in yen in your wallet at all times.
Your ATM card is NOT a debit card. Usually you can only withdraw money from ATMs from your respective bank (this is especially true of smaller banks from rural areas), and often these machines will close down after 6pm and for the entire weekend as well. Convenience stores do have ATMs, though it is not guaranteed that your bank’s card will work – please check in advance and try and sign up for a bank that allows you to withdraw cash from a convenience store ATM. Make sure you take out cash before the weekend!!!
If you are using a foreign card to withdraw cash, these cards typically only work at the Post Office ATMs or 7-11 ATMs. They may also work at Citibank ATMs if you are living in a bigger city.
If you are traveling internationally, check exchange rates in Japan as well as in the country you will be visiting. Sometimes it may be cheaper to change your money in Japan before you leave; sometimes it may be better to change once you arrive. Ordering foreign currency from your bank can also be cheaper than exchanging it at the airport. Always bring some USD with you – especially if visiting less developed countries – in case of emergencies.
Not Bringing Back Omiyage for Co-Workers – It is custom in Japan to bring back small gifts for your coworkers if you have announced that you will be traveling. There is usually no need for individual gifts unless you feel like you want to, but it is always best to bring back some sort of non-perishable food item that can easily be shared – present this to your vice principal/principal and they will usually set it out somewhere in the teacher’s room for everyone to enjoy.
Additional Travel Planning Advice
- Bring extra passport photos with you when you travel internationally. You may need them.
- Even if you don’t think you will be driving in Japan, get an international driver’s license before your home country.
- Get a Smartphone with GSM capabilities if you are planning on traveling internationally. This will allow you to make calls while abroad in case of emergency, and the wi-fi functions on most smartphones will let you tap into the internet while you are abroad for free (do not access the internet over cellular networks while abroad – it can be devastatingly expensive!)
- If you have an iPhone or other smartphone in your home country, when you cancel your contract ask your carrier if they will unlock your phone for you as you are moving abroad – if they unlock it, you may be able to use it in Japan.
Useful Travel Websites
Join the JET-Setters Facebook Group. It’s a great way to ask questions, find out information, connect with other travelers, and to be inspired! You can also find an live GoogleDoc with a bunch of useful links about traveling.
Airfare, Hotels & Travel Packages
- www.no1-travel.com – great agency for booking cheap intl airfare – foreigner friendly
- www.travel.rakuten.co.jp – hotels and packages in English/Japanese
- www.tokyoko-inn.co.jp – clean, cheap, dependable hotel chain near major stations in most cities
- www.skymark.co.jp/en – one of Japan’s budget carriers; cheap flights to Tokyo and elsewhere
- www.jalan.net – great site for booking hotels and travel packages. Japanese only
- www.jtb.co.jp – japan’s largest travel agency.
- www.kayak.com – travel rate search aggregate site
- www.bing.com/travel – the only redeeming thing about bing is their price predictor – which will tell you if rates are expected to drop or increase in the coming days, weeks, etc.
Trains & Buses
- www.hyperdia.com/cgi-english/hyperWeb.cgi – excellent website in English that includes JR and private lines
- www.jourdan.co.jp/english/norikae/e-norikeyin.html – great website for planning train travel and checking times and last trains.
- www.jr-odekake.net – JR website, Japanese only
- www.bus.or.jp/e/ – Japan bus website
- www.japantravelinfo.com – official website of the Yokoso! Japan tourism campaign
- www.tripadvisor.com – good reviews on hotels and locations
- www.jnto.go.jp – Japanese tourism organization, has a travel planner and guides to events and festivals.
- www.ryokan.or.jp/index_en.html – Japan Ryokan association – lets you know what you expect
- www.couchsurfing.org – website that lets you stay at people’s homes or host travelers for free. kinda sketch.
- www.lonelyplanet.com – best guidebooks out there
- www.foursquare.com – location-based SNS for smartphones – great way to explore new places
While traveling is fun and can be a highlight of the JET experience like it was for me, don’t forget to show your town/city/or village some love as well.
Many of your neighbors and students will really appreciate it if you stick around to explore festivals or activities in the area instead of jetting off somewhere exotic every vacation – and there can be quite a bit to experience in your home town no matter how small it might seem!
This was one of my biggest regrets on JET, as I felt like I missed out on quite a bit that was going on in my village in Saga by traveling every chance I could and looking back I wish I had balanced my trips with some weekends and holidays spent in Saga.
Eddie Mears – Saga ALT (2007-2009)