I am frequently asked about training in Japan from those interested in visiting the country for training themselves. I'm going to write a series of blog posts here to help those plan for their upcoming trip, how much to save for, navigating in Japan, training in Japan, and any other pertinent information I feel people will be interested to know. I hope this information is useful for Bujinkan deshi as well as anyone interested in visiting the country and what to expect. If you are a deshi in a different form of Budo, much of this will still be applicable to you and training in your art's dojos in Japan. If you are one of my deshi, you are always welcome to travel with me when I go to train in Japan. However, sometimes schedules may conflict and you can't travel when I do, so I hope this helps in your planning. So, let's start briefly with things to be aware of when traveling without your sensei.
Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for use as a reference. It is based on my personal experiences. No part of this blog can be or should be taken as legal, medical, or other advice.
If you plan to go on your own, there is no prohibition in the Bujinkan to training in the Hombu (headquarters dojo) without your sensei. This may not be the case with other Koryu, some are more strict about such things. But most Gendai Budo schools don't have a prohibition against showing up without your sensei. Do be aware, if you show up to the Hombu, the sensei teaching class will likely try to get to know you because they won't recognize you. They will ask who your sensei is and where he/she is. Your best bet to answer is to say you are visiting Japan for vacation and wanted to also get in some training. Keep in mind that weird things have happened in the past, like people going to Japan and trying to get ranked up equal to or beyond their sensei back home. So, they are sometimes warry of such attempts. There are some other politics involved with this, which I will cover in more detail in another post about attending training classes in Japan. Just know, by saying you are doing a vacation to Japan and doing some budo while there will avoid most political taboos.
So, let's talk flying: Flying to Japan will be your single largest expense, by far! Especially at the time of this posting, I've never seen flights to Japan as expensive as they are right now. The second largest single expense will be your lodging (that will be another blog post). If you want to be on the same flight as me, we'll work that out in advance ahead of one of my trips. If you are going on your own, here are some tips how to get the best fare, what to expect from the flight, and how to stave off flight boredom. When planning your budget (and I'll go into much more detail in future posts) think of your flight cost and in-country costs as two separate items. Figure out your flight cost (see below), and then use the next post to plan for the rest of your expenses to get a real sense of how much to have saved for your trip.
Picking your flight: I use Google Flights to choose my round trip tickets. It is a great service that can show you the best flight prices in a given range. So, if you don't have specific dates in mind for your flight and can be flexible, it will help you find the best prices for a variety of airlines. I usually have a specific month or months I intend to be in Japan, so I enter those dates, click on Date Grid, and then it shows me a calendar with prices on the other days in the month so I can find the best one (see image below). Sometimes just flying a day or two earlier or later will save you hundreds of dollars. You can also click on Price Graph and scroll through the months of the year to see when prices drop the most on flights if you can be that flexible and don't care what month you travel in. Usually October through March has the best pricing for flights because that is off the peak season for touring Japan.
What to expect from your flight: I'm going to approach this with the assumption you have not done a lot of flying, especially international flying, that way I can hit on more details you might need to know. If you don't live in a major city along the west coast (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles) you can expect to have a layover in one of these airports. So, plan accordingly. The flight time will also differ quite a bit based on which of those airports you fly to Japan from. They all follow the same path, along the Aleutian Islands, then down to Japan. So, Seattle is going to have the shortest flight time, Los Angeles is going to have the longest flight time. So, you could have a flight time from 10 hours to 13 or more hours. That is a long time to be cramped in an economy seat. So, bring plenty to keep you entertained. Luckily, most, if not all, international flights have some form of media to keep you entertained also. I personally have found I enjoy Delta flights the most. Other airlines I've flown on to Japan have not been as consistent in their offerings. Delta will usually have a power outlet for charging your devices (A/C outlet, USB, or both) and your own personal TV screen with Netflix-styled offerings you can choose to watch (I try to get caught up on movies I've not yet seen but wanted to). I've flown other airlines that had the same movie playing for everyone to watch. If another airling is your cheapest/best option for your trip, bring plenty of things to keep you entertained.
Staving off Boredom: No matter what airline I fly, I bring a book or two, my Nintendo Switch, and DJ style over the ear corded headphones. I know bluetooth is where it's at these days, but planes typically won't have a way to listen to your movie with a blue tooth device. They will give you some free earbuds, but trust me, you don't want to rely on those. They aren't loud enough and they don't block out any of the engine noise. So, I have corded over the ear head phones I bought from Amazon that I love. These ones. They are intended for DJs (they are entry level DJ head phones) so they have great passive noise reduction, are plenty loud, have great sound, and they swivel and fold flat so they are comfortable when just worn around my neck. And they take a long time before they become uncomfortable when worn. Typically I switch between entertainment, watching a movie provided on the plane, read my book, play some Nintendo, watch another movie, read some more. You get the idea. Also, the airline is going to feed you a full meal, sometimes two, plus several snacks. Typically, I can expect Delta to give me a snack and beverage like any flight, then dinner (you'll have your choice between two main entre options or a third vegetarian option), then a snack like an ice cream sandwich or cookie, then a bottle of water, then breakfast (usually something like a fruit or fruit cup, an egg ham and cheese croissant sandwich, and a yogurt). So, you'll have plenty of food, so bringing snacks is completely optional on the plane.
Other pertinent details: For first-time international travelers, be aware of your departure date and arrival date! Japan's time zone is far ahead of ours in the USA. When flighting into Japan, you will arrive a day later than you left the USA. So, if you get on a plane in Seattle, Portland, or any airport flying directly to Japan, on Monday, you will arrive in Japan on Tuesday. This is important when planning your hotel stay, don't reserve a room for the date you leave the USA, reserve your room starting the date you actually arrive in Japan.
This probably goes without saying, but you will need a passport to fly to Japan. Be sure to apply for one early! You don't want to get stuck with non-transferable tickets when your passport doesn't arrive in time. Typically, give yourself about two months lead time. However, I have heard that passports have been super slow right now, sometimes taking four months to arrive. So, plan ahead!
TSA PreCheck. I Love TSA PreCheck. It is so worth it to me to pay the fee (I think it is $80 for five years right now) to breeze through security in the USA (obviously TSA PreCheck doesn't apply at the airports in Japan when you fly home), not have to remove ANYTHING from your luggage for the X-ray, not removing ANY clothing or shoes, and just going through a metal detector instead of the X-Ray scatter imagining that doses you with low levels of radiation. If you are only going to be flying the one time in those five years, it might not be worth it. If you will fly at least once per year, think of it this way: Would you pay $16 not to wait in long security lines? I fly several times per year, not just to Japan, so paying the fee is a no brainer for me.
Picking your seats. As stated before, it is going to be a long flight. Try to get a good seat. The least amount of turbulence will be experienced in seats at the wings of the plane. Also, try to not sit in a center seat, you will hate life during the flight, LOL. Think about your personal needs. Will you need to use the restroom frequently during the flight? Then and aisle seat is your best bet. If you don't need to use the restroom often, and don't want to be bothered by the window seat person asking you to move so they can use the restroom, then pick a window seat. Most airlines offer an upgrade that is still in coach, but with more leg room. On Delta flights it is called Comfort+. Sometimes the price isn't worth the added leg room. I always check just in case because if it is only going to be $100 or $200 more for all flights to be Comfort+, that is totally worth it to me. If it's more than that, I skip it and just deal with being cramped. Hey, I'm about to be in Japan, I really have no reason to complain even being a bit cramped.
Immigration and customs declarations: Towards the end of the flight, the flight attendants will hand out a Declarations card. This is for you to fill out on the plane to make it quicker getting through immigration. You will certify that you are not bringing in any contraband to the country such as drugs or pornography. They take this pretty seriously. I have a friend who had some workout supplements: protein powder and liquid vitamins in unmarked containers (he didn't want to lug the full sized containers with him, only what he needed for the trip). They detained him for a long LONG time. They almost deported him rather than take the time to test the substances for drugs. He was actually pretty lucky to have gotten into the country. A security person found a picture of him online with our Soke of the Bujinkan, Masaaki Hatsumi. Our Soke is famous enough in Japan that they trusted my friend to be a good person since he was known to our Soke. Otherwise, he would have been sent back to the USA. I've flown with protein powder and supplements before, but I put them in marked containers and I never get hassled. I have taken training swords into Japan, if you are asked about them, just say they are for Kendo. Everyone in Japan knows what Kendo is, not everyone knows what Bujinkan is. And yes, even though I had bokken, and bokken aren't used in Kendo, they still accept my Kendo explanation without blinking. Flying out of Japan with swords is another experience altogether. Expect another blog post to cover that topic later in this series.
Click here to continue to Part 2.
Shane Sensei is a licensed Shidoshi in the Bujinkan and member of the Shidoshi-Kai. He has trained in the Bujinkan since 1998 and regularly travels to Japan for training.