RE: Your Japan Trip
Great to hear from you! How are things going?
So cool that you’re going to Japan! You’ve made an excellent choice — it’s by far my favourite country in the world to visit. I talk so much about Japan that my friends always refer people who are traveling there to me — I guess that’s why you got in touch?
I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Japan, but I have traveled there a few times, so I’ve picked up some tips over the years. Hope these might be useful for you!
Let’s start with the most important item: food. Japan might have the best food in the world, so you’re in for a treat (literally).
Here’s a short list of foods you should definitely try:
- … and of course: Sushi
That’s really just the tip of the iceberg. For drinks, you should try sake, shōchū, or haiboru (“highball”) for a proper Japanese experience.
Many people are worried Japan is expensive, but there’s actually a huge span in prices when it comes to food (and accommodation too, as we’ll get to later). For instance, we had amazing udon for about €5 in this place, and a few days later we had Kobe beef for about 30 times the price of that here.
Be sure to try local specialties in the cities you visit. Osaka and Hiroshima are both famous for their own varieties of delicious okonomiyaki.
The city of Fukuoka has an incredible selection of yatai — food stands where you get a rare chance to converse with the locals around a chef preparing delicious dishes for you.
I highly recommend getting a Japanese SIM card so you have internet access on your phone. This makes it a lot easier to find great places to eat. Sometimes these can be on the 8th floor of a building, or hidden inside a shopping centre, so you’d never find it without instructions. Apps like Foursquare can certainly be helpful for discovering good places.
If you’ve never been to Japan, you simply have to visit Tokyo. Many people assume Tokyo will be an enormous, chaotic metropolis, but it has actually been ranked as the world’s most liveable city three times by lifestyle magazine Monocle.
I can only describe Tokyo as infinitely fascinating. It’s a city of cities. Walk down a huge avenue in Shibuya among skyscrapers. Take a step into a side street and experience vintage shops in a tiny street — or perhaps you’ll find a Shinto temple.
Tokyo is the type of place which makes you marvel at what the human race is capable of. Every time I go there I genuinely feel humbled.
I won’t even attempt giving detailed tips on what you should do in Tokyo, as that would take up this entire text, but you can have a look at this list for some recommendations on where to go.
Most tourists follow what’s referred to as “the Golden Route” when visiting Japan. This effectively means they do some variation of going from Tokyo to Kyoto and back again. Taking the Shinkansen train is certainly the best option, and getting a JR Pass might be a good idea, depending on your itinerary.
Many tourists make a stop on their way to Kyoto in order to try out the Japanese countryside. Hakone is one of the most famous destinations, an it’s famous for its onsen (hot springs), but I’ve never been there myself. I’d definitely recommend visiting Lake Kawaguchi for a close-up view of Mount Fuji.
Following the Golden Route, you’ll eventually end up in Kyoto — the best destination for visiting Japanese temples.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about Kyoto. Author R. Taggart Murphy captures this quite accurately in his book “Japan and the Shackles of the Past”:
“Kyoto today resembles a once-lovely woman who has had acid thrown in her face; you can still make out enough to tell that she had been a great beauty, but it is a melancholy act of mental reconstruction.”
Murphy is referring to the somewhat bizarre mix of 80's concrete buildings and the beautiful Shinto temples from a time gone by. Kyoto has plenty of history, and is certainly worth visiting. But it also has a huge amount of tourists. I’d say 2 days is enough. Renting a bike is the best option to get from temple to temple.
Also, if you like hiking, definitely walk up Mount Inari to see beautiful shrines like this one:
If you happen to go around April, you might even be lucky enough to enjoy the temples during sakura (cherry blossom). You can check the sakura forecast here.
Once in Kyoto, Osaka is only a short train ride away. Where Kyoto represents traditional Japan, Osaka shows off the modern Japanese “salaryman” culture. This is the place for karaoke, fun, and games. To be fair though, Osaka also has a rich history. The prime example is Osaka Castle, which has been hugely important in Japan’s history, and is well worth a visit.
One of my favourite spots in Osaka is this hidden gem:
It’s a small vegetable garden on top of Umeda station called Tenku-no-noen. You get there by taking the lift or escalator to the 11th floor, then the stairs outside from the 11th floor up to the 14th floor. A vegetable garden in the middle of a hyper modern city —it doesn’t get more Japanese than that!
After you’ve had one of the famous okonomiyaki from Osaka for lunch, you can have a great view over the city by visiting Umeda Sky Building.
One of the less known places in Japan is Fukuoka. If you have time for the 3 hour train ride from Kyoto, it’s well worth a visit. Hiroshima is also on the way, so you can stop there and have another delicious okonomiyaki for lunch to compare with the one you had in Osaka.
One of my favourite Japan experiences was an extraordinary encounter in Fukuoka’s beautiful Ōhori park. Generally, I’d say I managed to connect more with the locals in Fukuoka than in any other Japanese city I’ve visited. Perhaps the Fukuokans’ interest in foreigners is due to their role as a gateway to the mainland, which means plenty of commerce has taken place here over the years. The fabulous yatai mentioned above also certainly facilitate striking up conversations with locals.
Fukuoka is establishing itself as startup city, and even offers entrepreneur visas to foreigners. Fukuoka also ranks among the most liveable cities in the world according to Monocle.
As with food, accommodation in Japan ranges from very cheap to extremely expensive, depending on your taste. On the cheap end, you can live in a super-modern capsule hotel in the middle of Shinjuku, Tokyo for €24 per night.
Among the more expensive options, you find luxury high-end hotels. If you take a night or two in a capsule hotel, and one in a more high-end hotel, the average price doesn’t come out too bad. Make sure you ask for a room on a floor high up to enjoy the beautiful view over Tokyo.
In the mid-range you find a lot of great hotels throughout Japan ranging from €70 to €90 per room per night. The rooms are often small, but the standard is consistently high. Often you’ll have an onsen (hot spring) at your disposal, which is great for winding down after some intense sightseeing.
I’d recommend trying all of the above: ryokan, mid-range hotel, capsule hotel, and high-end. On our last trip to Japan we did just that at a budget of about €90/night for 2 persons.
In order to add a dimension to your trip, I would highly encourage you to bring a book about Japan on your trip. This will make a lot of your Japanese surroundings more understandable.
If you haven’t read much about Japan before, I recommend “Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival” by David Pilling.
Other great books are “Japan and the Shackles of the Past” by R. Taggart Murphy and “A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present” by Andrew Gordon.
If you’re prepared to embark on an epic 1,152-page journey, consider the fabulous “Shōgun” by James Clavell.
Speaking of books, you need a Japanese phrasebook. English is not widely spoken in Japan, but you can get quite far by memorising 10–15 phrases. Lonely Planet’s Japanese Phrasebook & Dictionary worked quite well for me.
Another really useful preparation is to learn katakana — one of Japan’s three writing systems. Why katakana? Because all foreign words in Japanese (e.g. those taken from English) are written in katakana. That means you’ll be able to read words like hotel (ホテル) and toilet (トイレ), which might come in handy.
People and Culture
Japanese people are incredibly friendly, polite, and helpful. Using your phrasebook, it’s a good idea to try to pick up basic courtesy phrases, but don’t worry about getting everything right — that would take a lifetime in Japan. Japanese people generally do not hold tourists to the same high expectations as themselves.
As with all other places you visit, it’s a good idea to adapt and follow what the locals do. Don’t try to out-compete the Japanese on courtesy though — you’re bound to fail.
I could go on forever about Japan, but I worry I might have overwhelmed you already with my enthusiasm. Also, writing this has put me dangerously close to buying tickets for another Japan trip, so I better wrap up now.
I hope you have a wonderful trip to Japan! Please send photos and let me know how it goes.
P.S. Many of these tips come from friends who had gone to Japan before me. So if you liked the suggestions, be sure to pass them on to any aspiring Japan travellers you meet.