This is a guest post by our friend Amy Cham. Amy compiled us an amazing guide full of her Japan tips to help us plan for our trip there next month and it was too good not to share some of her advice with you.
Ah Japan, irasshaimase! Welcome to the land where everything, just works. The land of convenience, the land of delicious food, paradox, naked strangers, and where respect permeates through every part of society and culture…
In Japan the food can be described as clean and minimalist, but never simple, which probably sums up Japan as a whole. It’s a place that both lives up to, and out does, any expectation you have upon arrival.
Uh-huh, they have the fastest, sleekest, most efficient trains (ever!), but they still have paper posters pegged up on their Tokyo subway. Yeah, they have amazing futuristic architecture, but they also have countless traditional wooden buildings in amongst it all. Yes, they have the busiest people-crossing in the world (shibuya), but at no point is it ever chaotic, no need for anyone to bang on a cab screaming, “Hey, I’m walking here!”. Yes, they have scores of scarily trendy, funkily clad young people who like to cosplay on weekends, but they also have evening family outings to sentos.
Here are some tips to get the most out of a trip to Japan.
Before You Arrive
- No visa requirements for most nationalities for stays of up to 90 days but have a return flight out, as they WILL grill you upon arrival. It was the nicest immigration interrogation we’ve ever had though.
- Buy your Japanese Rail Pass exchange order (more on that later).
- Practice even rudimentary Japanese, numbers are very useful!
General Dos and Don’ts
- Bow if you are being bowed to. If you can manage it too, don’t turn your back upon exit. Don’t overdo it though or you’ll be a total gaijin, no need to bow to the supermarket checkout person!
- Say “moshi moshi” when you ring someone on the telephone. It’s the Japanese version of the Chinese “wai” which all roughly translates as…hello! I don’t know why, us Asians just have a separate hello for the phone!
- Pre-book accommodation. Wise anyway as the good hostels always get filled up fast (we kept missing out on doubles and had to put up with twin (bunk bed) rooms, but in line with the whole respect thing Japanese people like to be prepared for your arrival. So don’t just randomly rock up at a ryokan for the night!
- Get a Japanese Rail Pass.There’s no way round this, it’s a bloody fortune (£350/$555 per person for a 2 week pass), but one that more than pays you back. The luxury of shinkansen (bullet train) hopping is exhilarating. No need to book seats in advance, just choose a train, wave your pass and hop on. This is only worth it though if you want to explore the country, probably not worth it for just 1 – 2 journeys. Be warned though, decide now whether to get one or not. You can’t get these babies inside the country. Yes, that’s right. They’re magic passes that are only available to foreigners. It’s a convoluted business getting an exchange order, and then getting it swapped for a pass and validated in the country. We had to seek out a specific travel agent in Bangkok to get our hands on an exchange order, but there are websites like JRailPass.com that deliver the orders to addresses in Europe and the US. The important thing to remember though is to not get it validated until you need to start using it; the clock starts ticking as soon as the stamp goes on it. See this post at The Road Forks for more on whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it.
- Go onsening…although if it’s summer when you get there…! Seriously, hot, doesn’t even come close to describing the water temperatures! Read more about Onsens in Japan.
- Stay in a ryokan (traditional inn). Outrageously expensive, but worth the experience and the amazing meals that often get included with the room rates. You can cheat like we did and stay in a modern (much cheaper!!) ryokan but it’d be great to experience a more traditional one. Read more about accommodation options in Japan.
- Stay in a traditional tatami mat room. If you can’t stay in a ryokan, a much cheaper way to stay in one is a traditional room in K’s House hostels. We never had a bad experience with this hostel chain.
- Appreciate the zen like calm on all modes of transport – no need for quiet only carriages here!
- Try to speak as much Japanese as possible. In three weeks I never got beyond pidgin Japanese but still, even equipped with the basics we would go days without needing to use any English. You’ll have no choice anyway, as not a lot of people speak any English whatsoever, and a lot of transport maps etc are in Japanese only.
- See some sumo. If you’re lucky enough to be in the country when one of the sumo tournaments is on, go! Admittedly the sport lacks the drama of muay thai, but like thai kick-boxing, it’s the pre/ post game rituals that are fascinating to watch. Fairly cheap and easy to score tickets on the day for matches.
- Expect bursts of freakery!
- Get your paper fortune at a Japanese Buddhist temple. Okay we cheated and got an English one at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, but what the hell!
- Love the Japanese for their never-ending capacity to help you out, and they won’t stop until they do!
- Have some sushi… Oh go on…You’re in Japan, sushi is the essence of Japan, plus sushi-train/ sushi stand up bars are so much fun watching the chefs take your order, and all shout in unison, “samon!” or “tamago!” etc. (Erin’s note: we aren’t going to start eating fish but we did find lots of delicious vegetarian Japanese food)
- Appreciate the plastic food models as works of art!
- Shop at the 100 Yen shops. Like pound shops BUT BETTER!
- Get any vouchers going at the hostels you’re staying at, every yen counts!
- Stay longer if you get the urge. It’s one of our biggest regrets of our travels that we didn’t.
- Play in the numerous arcades dotted around cities, the taiko drum one rocks!
- Make use of the many vending machines EVERYWHERE. You will never go thirsty in Japan that’s for sure. You can even get hot coffee…in a can! In fact you can get friggin’ anything from vending machines from cheap 100 yen sake (yuk!) to hot chips (not surprisingly we did not try!).
- Press random buttons on the panel next to you on the loo. It will make you giggle ;o)! Also, if it’s cold then appreciate the absolute miracle of heated toilet seats.
- Fall in love with seeing toriis (shrine gates) everywhere, especially small red ones in rows behind each other.
- Love and appreciate the beautiful presentation of absolutely everything from the amazing architecture to the way bento boxes are wrapped in a napkin tied in a knot just so, to amazing manhole covers!
- Track your expenses – Your finances can easily get out of control in Japan so use an app like Trail Wallet to keep track of what you’re spending and help you stay on budget. Read more about travel costs in Japan.
- Pack light – It will be much easier to hop on and off trains if you pack light. Best of all, travel with just carry-on only luggage—Erin’s book The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light teaches you how.
- Eat non-Japanese. We only tried this once in Fukuoka. We had an Indian curry craving, but after that experience we went straight back to Japanese.
- Be impatient. Things will get sorted for you. The good thing about Japan though is that you probably won’t ever find yourself getting impatient anyway, everything, smoooootthhhhh as.
- Go whizzing around the country too much. Although I wouldn’t change a thing about our three weeks, I wish we had had more time to stay longer in certain places.
- Wear holey socks. You’ll only be embarrassing yourself when you take your shoes on/ off constantly!
- Go into an onsen without washing first, that’s just dirty dude! Also, don’t go into the bathing area with a towel wrapped around you, you’ll just look stupid. Embrace the nudity! Everyone’s naked so no-one cares.
- Forget travel insurance. Healthcare is expensive in Japan, so make sure you are covered in case the worst happens. The best we’ve found is True Traveller (UK/EU citizens) and World Nomads (worldwide). Read more about how to buy travel insurance.
Thanks to Amy for the helpful advice. (She doesn’t have a blog but she really should!)
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All photos by Amy Cham.
What are your top tips for planning a trip to Japan? Leave a comment and tell us.