Next year, all things being equal and the world rediscovering some sort of vague notion of ‘normal’, the Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo, Japan. The Olympics will showcase this amazing destination no doubt, and inspire people to come and visit. And provided everything goes smoothly, with a world slowly trying to break out of hibernation, an influx of tourists may well result.
I know a number of people who adore travelling to Japan. They can’t wait to go back. Cards on the table – my wife is Japanese, and as many readers will know I lived there for a little over two years. But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy to go back when we can, and we do hope to get back there in the second half of 2021, again, all things being somewhat back to ‘normal’, whatever that may mean.
Compared to many places around the world, Japan is a reasonably easy place to get around and travel. It’s not as challenging I guess as some of the other places I’ve featured on my Thursday spot, but having said that, there are definitely things that would help the first timer before they hit the ground in Japan.
You get off a plane and find yourself in a very unique place, A country where people are expected, and for the very great part do, things a certain way. And it’s important to be a little prepared for that. Social niceties are a big part of Japanese culture, and if you are rude to someone, accidently without realising it, well they may well end up quite offended.
I feel like in Japan the people believe ‘it is this way’ and anything that challenges that ascertain, that understanding that they have of something, can be difficult for them to grapple with. And for sure people in Japan have a view on foreigners, what they expect them to be like and expectations of them when they are in their country.
It’s not something to worry at all about because without a doubt, the Japanese are amongst the kindest in the world, although they are very shy at times which can be a bit of a problem. But there are pushes in hostels and the like to really connect with the visitors to Japan, and to give them a good experience, and the Japanese themselves love to travel, both internationally and domestically. This means that they are well set up for tourism, and on top of that you can usually find plenty of information on hand when you need to.
So what do you need to know? Well, possibly less than in some places, and more than in others I would say, but then that’s a pretty generic statement and a half of full cream dairy milk, isn’t it? Today I’ll talk a little about the people, customs, language and culture, things to be aware of as a foreigner, and talk a bit about transport and accommodation options. And as always I will finish with a few recommendations on what to see and where to go in incredible Japan! Thanks for joining me!
Before You Go – Visas and Arrival
Okay, so before I head into those topics, I like to talk about the arrival formalities. I always imagined that arrival into Japan was going to be difficult. In as much as I thought the airport procedures would be stringent and there would be loads of questions to answer etc. It wasn’t though.
Firstly, a LOT of nations do not require a visa at all, and that includes most ‘western’ nations. Right now it’s not so easy of course with the pandemic. And when things shift towards ‘normal’, who’s to say that things won’t be more stringent. But in every arrival I’ve been stamped through with little fuss or waiting. Which is great because my goodness sometimes it’s slow and painful in other countries! I think Japan is a very well organised country in general, and so you benefit from this aspect at the airport/s.
Loads of airlines fly to Japan, it’s probably silly to start listing them. Of course, the two main Japanese airline at Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) and both have very good reputations, people honestly RAVE about JAL – mostly about the service.
Kansai Airport, although a fair way from major cities, services Osaka and Kyoto, reached by train. Tokyo has two main airports – Narita, which is a long way from town and is reached by a somewhat expensive fast train or a slower local train which takes around 90 minutes, and also Haneda. I do advise flying into Haneda if you can. It’s not the world’s greatest (or biggest) airport, but it’s much more handy for going into Tokyo or indeed Yokohama.
There are plenty of other international airports too – Japan has a number of large cities, so places like Fukuoka, Hiroshima, even Sendai have international connections, to name but a few.
Getting About the Place
Travelling around Japan is easy, but not cheap. Japan has one of the world’s great train systems, which includes local trains, metro trains and of course, the super-fast Shinkansens. Which you really do want to use if you can.
I know I am a great lover of trains, but getting around in anything other than bullet trains when you travelling Japan is, well, sad! The trains are fast, convenient, comfortable, and take you into the centre of a city usually. Even flying can take longer when you factor in getting to and from the airports, not to mention the check-in experience and waiting for your bags. However, there are now budget airlines in Japan (including Jetstar) which are cheaper than taking the very fast trains. So if you are looking to save some money on transport, well, this might be worth looking into.
Or there are buses, including plenty of night buses. Run by different companies, one of the most prominent being (more than a little ironically) Japan Rail, buses are not a bas way to get around really, except that you may well be wishing you were on the Shinkansen. However, you will save a lot of money by taking the buses, which will surely take a lot longer of course, but they aren’t that popular and the ones I’ve taken have never been more than half full. Sometimes they drop you off (and pick you up) in some strange locations I should warn you.
If your budget allows, and I will deal with the costs a little later, then go by rail. Japan Rail passes are the go. They don’t get you on every single train I should say, the very fastest of the fast trains often don’t accept the rail passes, but they do get you on most Shinkansen trains. You do need to book the train though, which costs a little (a few bucks) on top of pass, and the cost of the pass depends on the type, length etc – similar in many ways to a Eurail pass. If you travel the trains a fair bit over your time in Japan, it will save you good money.
For more information, check out this post – Japan Survival Guide Part Three – Getting Around by Rail!
Hotels, Hostels, Accommodation
Japan has a lot of great accommodation options for the visitor. And the good news is, outside the main cities, they are not nearly as expensive as you might be expecting. From hostels to high-end hotels, to uniquely Japanese places to stay such as ryokans, Japan has something for all budgets.
The thing that probably won’t surprise you is – they are all, usually, immaculately clean. That includes the hostels. I remember one day in Kyoto the hostel staff (foreigners with Japanese management) were issued toothbrushes and set about cleaning every nook and cranny of the place, including sliding door frames and those sorts of places.
Dorm beds are plentiful, and I found the hostels I stayed in across Japan to be friendly – often with events that mingled visitors with locals and free tours and the like – and welcoming. Saving costs on dining out is easy at hostels, most had good kitchen facilities.
The are such things as ‘Business Hotels’ in Japan as they call them. These are cheaper hotels where you can get a room usually between $60 – $100 USD per night. The rooms and bathrooms are somewhat small, but they are neat and clean, and in the lobby there are usually vending machines with noodles and facilities to make tea and cook noodles in your room. Toyoko Inn is one of the best known in these chains. Probably better for one person rather than two, they still do the job.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese Inns, and can be very cheap, from $50USD or less to far more expensive than a business hotel, depending on locations, facilities etc. You’ll find yourself with a thin mattress on the floor of your room, which will be covered in tatami mats. But this is how the majority of people in Japan sleep even today – I slept this way for over two years. You’ll also probably get breakfast included in the price. Be prepared for a Japanese breakfast with cold fish, miso soup, rice and green tea, and probably a few other things that are hard to describe. I recommend at least one night in a Ryokan to claim the ‘authentic Japanese experience’ – you may find you really like them and they are definitely comfortable.
Other than high end hotels, which are certainly expensive, and camping, which I never did in Japan, you might want to try a ‘Capsule Inn’. I really must try one just for the experience. You sleep in your own little ‘capsule’, often with a TV and a bunch of other little things you didn’t realise you need. I can only imagine though that getting up for the toilet in the middle of the night is quite a pain! One thing’s for sure – Japan has a LOT of different offerings when it comes to accommodation. I haven’t tried Air BnB there either for the record!
Check Out – Top Five Backpacker Sleeps in Japan
I’m not a huge foodie, and I don’t like seafood and a number of sauces used in Japan, but nevertheless I can say that the food in Japan is brilliant. It’s varied so many options, so many types of noodles for example. In fact you’ll find TWO noodle MUSEUMS in Yokohama alone, and they are just the ones I know about. Plus the Japanese love to sit round a table and cook and eat thin cuts of meat which is really cool. You have Okonomiyaki which I find just as hard to pronounce as to spell. It’s a sort of egg frittata thing that commonly you cook at your table in a restaurant where they have a hot plate for you to do so. They mix meat, sauces and often bean shoots in with it.
Although technically Chinese (so I was told) Ramen is mty favourite kind of noodle, served often with pork and vegies. You’ll find loads of ‘Ramen Places’ and they’re usually less than 10 dollars (US) for a filling bowl. Udon are bigger, and as an individual noodle probably my favourite. Soba less so, thin and often served with a sour sauce. Sushi places are plentiful of course, although they don’t always add things like chicken to sushi which I think is more of an adaption in western countries. Then there is karaage – Japanese chicken. To die for!
Money and Costs
I KNOW that everyone says that Japan is a super expensive country, but I have to adamantly disagree. Yes, the trains are expensive. The Japan RailPass helps to some extent, but you still fork out a lot of money, but as I’ve said, you can always go by bus. Hotels are a little pricey in the big cities, hostels though compare to prices for hostels in Europe, but are much better value for money in my opinion as they are at the very least much cleaner, and have better facilities.
Food can be expensive, especially at restaurants. But instead try smaller places, Ramen bars or even little fast food joints. Or convenience stores – there is no end to convenience stores in Japan! So many, different types from 7Eleven to Family Mart and more. You’ll get premade sandwiches and many food options there, including mouth-watering karaage, in fact I’d say the best fried chicken is found in convenience stores.
Cash is still king, perhaps strangely, in Japan. Many places don’t take cards, and many ATMs don’t like foreign cards. Your best bet is to pull money out at 7Eleven, I always found their ATMs took my Australian cards. ATMs also tend to ‘close’ early. Strangely even those in convenience stores are often shut after 5 or 6pm. And some even shut for the weekend. Not making this up. So you do need to plan when you’ll pull out some money. Always try when you arrive at the airport. Keep a good cash supply on you at all times. Current rate is 1USD = 105 Yen (approx.)
People, Language & Culture
Japanese people are kind and concerned, and perhaps a little wary of foreigners at the same time – mostly because many are shy. But it’s much easier to meet and get to know locals in Japan compared to some places for sure – for example Singapore. Japan’s sights are certainly amazing, but their people also enrich the country so much.
It’s really important to be respectful wherever you go, but especially in Japan. Don’t like taking your shoes off when you enter a place? Japan might not be the country for you. Being polite is really important, and learn a few phrases in Japanese such as ‘Su mi ma sen’ – Excuse Me/I’m sorry.
Although they use four different sets of characters/alphabet to write, and when you see a lot of Japanese written in front of you you can feel very lost very fast, Japanese as a spoken language is not that difficult. The grammar is a little back-to-front if compared to English (or vice-versa) but the sounds you need are simple, and don’t have altogether new sounds or require different tones. Learn some basic phrases because it will go a long way, and I don’t think it’s very hard to be honest. Also, you may be surprised by just how many people don’t speak English. It is taught to all students in school, but the emphasis is on written tests and not practical use of a foreign language.
Today Japan embraces past culture with it’s temples, and maintained houses and much more such as Kyoto’s Geisha district, whilst also producing new exports to the world, particularly in the fashion of manga and anime. Enthusiasts should check out museums to this kind of thing – there’s a great one in Kyoto.
See also – Faces of Japan
To see, to see..
I won’t go into great detail here, because I have written in the past on Japan’s many sights. I’ve been to Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Nara, Takayama, Hiroshima, Sendai, Morioka and more places, and they all have plenty to recommend them. You could easily spend a week in Tokyo and also Kyoto. They are brilliant. What I will do is a break down post in the coming weeks of my recommendations for what to see and do when you are in Japan. Look out for that on the 19th of November. It’s fair to say you could easily travel the place for six months and never get bored.
See Also – Seven Reasons to Visit Japan!
Thanks for reading today. Take care wherever you are – and May the Journey Never End!