When we booked our flight tickets to Tokyo a few months ago, I wasn’t quite sure how this holiday would turn up. I try to be cautious about promises to visit “the most amazing place” and doubted whether Japan would live to the hype. It did. Japan is such a fascinating and unique place to visit. I am also glad I ‘graduated’ to travel in Japan after having already experienced China and Singapore, which in retrospect appear in a different light.
Here are 16 thoughts about Japan, one for each day of our travels there.
It is logical to assume that the more countries one visits, the less likely they are to find something novel and unique. Japan is guaranteed to be different. Whether it’s its culture, food, architecture, entertainment, transportation, or people; Japan feels like nothing you have seen before.
Not just temples
We wanted to have a mixture of cities, history, hiking and sun and followed the itinerary below. The only change I recommend is to substitute a night in Osaka for an extra night at Shirahama.
Days 1-2: Tokyo
Day 3: Honke Bankyu Onsen, Yunishigawa
Day 4: Nikko
Day 5: Hakone and Mt. Fuji
Days 6: Takayama
Day 7: Shirakawa-go
Days 8-10: Kyoto
Day 11: Hiroshima
Days 12-13: Osaka
Days 14-15: Shirahama
Day 16: Tokyo
Meet the Japanese
It is hard and problematic to generalize about 127+ million people, but everyone we met was nice, welcoming and courteous. Privacy and personal distance is well kept but not in the cold–don’t-look-at-me manner you encounter in London. For some obscure reason the Japanese overwhelming courteousness is only detracted by the tendency to jump queues or push in line to the elevator, a behavior which I found rather amusing.
Compared to our travels in China, we found it harder to interact with Japanese. At our last night in Tokyo we met two Chinese couples and before we knew it, joined their table and were invited for a drink. This does not really happen with the Japanese, regardless of your proficiency of the language. In that sense, Mandarin is more useful in landing you a free drink and a great night out…
Language barriers? Not really
I got a bit lazy practicing my (very) basic Japanese when I realized that in most places English is understood. Knowledge of Japanese is helpful when buying train tickets, making hotel or restaurant reservations and ordering food. Knowledge of Japanese is mandatory if you want to have a chat with locals in onsens, sushi bars, train or elsewhere. You will have a better time if you speak some Japanese.
Onsens are natural hot-springs spas, usually separated for men and women. They’re everywhere and they’re great. We visited three or four onsens and each was different than the other. In Osaka we went to Spa World, an in-house “spa palace” with dozens of different themed pools. For ¥1000 ($11) it’s a non-brainer.
One of the traditional accommodation options in Japan is the ryokan, somewhat of an upscale Bed & Breakfast (& Dinner). Rooms are Japanese style which means sleeping on a futon laid down at night on the tatami floor. If you’re coming all the way to Japan you should definitely spend a night or two in a good ryokan. They usually have their own onsen or other public hot bath and depending on where you are staying (and how much you are willing to spend), offer delicious multi-course meals.
Try searching for “best beaches in Japan” and you’d hardly find an answer. We researched long and and finally booked two nights at Shirahama, Kansai and were delighted with our choice. We found a beautiful white-sand beach, nice hotels, great sun, fresh sashimi and not too many people. Japan might not challenge the beaches of the Philippines or Thailand, but if you’re there already, there are definitely nice beach to consider.
The Shinkansen, bullet-train service is unbelievable. The 250-300 km/h speeds feel like a safe rollercoaster ride. They are so efficient and pleasant to ride that it would be hard to get used to air travel again. It would be a blessing if Shinkansen type trains would start challenging low-cost airlines travel in Europe but given the price point I am not holding my breath. If you’re a train-buff, the Modern Transportation Museum in Osaka makes a nice visit and opportunity to play around with some train models not found elsewhere.
By far Japan has been the most mobile phone-obsessed country I have been to. Interestingly, in over two weeks I spotted just a couple of iPhones and a few Samsung phones. All the rest were vanilla flip-phones which look pretty much the same. I expected massive use of data but didn’t quite expect the ubiquitous use of phone cameras by everyone, from five year olds to an elderly grandmother.
Food, Food, and Food
Be it restaurants, groceries, markets, food stands, deli shops or vending machines, it feels like the majority of retail space in Japan is dedicated to food. Quite a surprise when you consider how rare obesity is and how slim everyone around you is.
Even the local supermarket offers better sashimi than most London restaurants. We had sashimi or nigiri almost every night. Ordering is easy: all you need is to point to the fish in front of you, or better off, ask for the same dish that someone else has ordered. After sampling more than a dozen different options, we still preferred Tuna and Salmon over everything else. Our best meal was at the Kozue restaurant at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. It is a must. The set meal was worth every penny and I cannot wait till my next visit in Tokyo to revisit it.
The Japanese Sweet Tooth
There are sweets shops everywhere, selling a variety of bean-based and rice-based candies. In the large cities you can also find beautifully done gourmet European-style patisseries. Now this is the deal. Imagine spotting a chocolate brownie, mousse or tiramisu which looks as good as a million dollar sushi roll. You get excited, pay the bill and bite into it, expecting the best desert you have ever tried. And then you realize how bland it is. What can I say; we have tried hard but could not find a single shop to offer even a reasonable decent croissant. It looks like a great opportunity to open a sweet shop where the deserts would actually taste as good as they look.
O-Sake, Umeshu and Whisky
Alcohol is as unique and good as Japanese food is. We settled in most nights for various types of umeshu, plum wine and especially like the brown sugar (kokuto) type. We also tried a drink called Half Moon but could not find it anywhere outside of Kyoto. With such a variety of sake (rice wine), beer and whisky Japan offers great drinking as well as eating.
Service is just great, especially if you compare it to what you’re used to in the UK or the Continent. There’s no tipping in Japan but given the average price of meal you can assume it is already included in the bill.
Traveling in Japan is as expensive as traveling in the UK or Europe. Rates for 4* hotels start at $150. A meal for 2 people in a mid-range restaurant was usually around $20-40. Transportation is expensive. We purchased a Japan Rail Pass, but otherwise a three hour bullet-train from Osaka to Tokyo would cost you $150. It is possible to enjoy Japan on a lower budget, but transportation and decent hotels and restaurants would still cost significantly more than in neighboring China, Thailand or Philippines.
Almost every single day was warm but not too hot (25-30°C) and sunny. We maybe had a day or two of brief rains. None of the warnings about 40°C Tokyo came true. On our last day, we got on the last flight to London as all other flights got cancelled due to a typhoon. Overall, I guess we just got lucky.