Where to begin when broaching something as large as Japan?
I personally have always been interested in the country because of their rich history and culture, and have since my first visit there studied a few semesters of the Japanese language. Which might be an indication that I really enjoyed my stay there. In an effort to minimise my ramblings this post will be divided into sections and since there is far to much to write about this will be about Japan in general. More about specific things you can do, destinations etc. will be in separate posts.
Japan has a mainly temperate climate but it varies greatly because of the country length. From the northernmost Hokkaido with cold winters and cool summers to Okinawa in the south with a subtropical climate. Therefore the time of the rainy seasons depends on where you are, but in Honshu (centre of the main island) it usually begins in the middle of June and last for about six weeks. The temperature will also depend largely on where in Japan you are going but the average winter temp is about 5 degrees celsius and the average summer temp is about 25 degrees. When to travel is up to you, I personally enjoy the summer but I know many preferably travel to Japan in the spring to see the Sakura (Cherry blossom trees) in full bloom.
The language can sometimes be a bit of a barrier since the Japanese, or at least the older generations, have not had a great practice in speaking english. In school they learned to read english, write it, the grammar of it but not the speaking of it. Therefor you might find that some chose avoid using it and others approach you just to speak english with you. But in my experience you can get by okay with english and the universal language of pointing and gesticulating. But if you learn some common phrases and words it will certainly make things much easier and facilitate the conversations. I found that if I used some Japanese phrases they felt more at ease with using english.
The Costs – Food and Accommodation
The costs is a though topic and I know many believe that the cost of living is huge in Japan but in my experience it doesn’t have to be. What I mean by that is that Japan can be expensive but it can also be fairly cheap. It all depends on where you stay and where you eat, as it is pretty much anywhere in the world. But in Japan I found this more obvious than in other countries I’ve been.
Since many Japanese in larger cities often eat out there are places to eat cheaply almost everywhere if you just take a look around the corner from the main street. I think I averaged between 5 and 8 dollars for meals (drinks excluded) during my last trip.
As for sleeping there all a lot of alternatives to help with keeping down the costs. There are mid-range hotels, hostels, capsule hotels and even all-night kissaten (coffee shops where you can have a stall for yourself for a night). Capsule hotels is a cool thing to tryout for a night and a mid-range hotel is exactly what is says, but I usually go for the hostels.
The quality of the hostels in Japan is good, if not great and the staff is mostly very helpful.
Besides being a way to cut costs they often have tips on what to do see and they are great for meeting others to exchange info and ideas with. I have also found that the often staff is more easygoing and willing to help with bookings, directions, timetables, general questions, etc. since they are more often approached and more in the thick of it compared to clerks in larger hotels.
One place you might what to splurge a bit is on a nights stay in a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) which usually is a great experience.
The Japanese are friendly and immensely helpful. Take out a map anywhere in public and in moments you will be asked if you need assistance. In one extreme case in Tokyo a man stopped to ask me if I needed help, which I did since I couldn’t find my lodgings. When the man didn’t recognise the name of the hotel he parked his bike down the street, came back and started asking all the passers by for directions on my behalf. Once in Kyoto I asked a lady regarding bus payment procedure which in turn led to her taking a cab with me, insisting on paying, walking me to the door of the hostel, giving me an omiyage (small gift) and thanking me (for what, I still don’t know) before leaving.
Before my first trip to Japan I was a little nervous since I had heard that the Japanese could be somewhat cold when it came to foreigners in their country but I have yet to encounter anything even close to that.
The Food & Drink
The food is often abundant and diverse. I can be either cheap or expensive and you can enjoy it in small hole-in-the-wall kind of places or fine establishments. The topic is so diverse that it deserves it’s own post (which it probably will get one day). But in summary you can get most types of food but you will miss something if you exclude Japanese cuisine. Mainly because I have yet to find “authentic” Japanese cuisine outside of Japan. But I do warn you that you might get some chocks if you are accustomed to western cuisine in form of tastes and textures, but it is well worth it because most of it is delicious. Generally local beers are reasonably priced, the lagers are really nice, and you can buy all types alcohol in the supermarkets and liquor stores, or if you are daring in some vending machines.
A few tips when dining in Japan:
- There is no tipping.
- Do not leave your chopsticks sticking out of the rice bowl. This is something associated with a Japanese burial custom.
- If someone fills your glass fill theirs in return.
- Itadakimasu, a phrase said before eating. Gochisousama, said when the meal is over akin to thank you for the meal.
- Environmental tip, buy a pair of chopstick and bring them with you or you will wind up using a whole lot of disposable ones.
In the larger city shopping is in abundance. There are both shops along the streets, huge name-brand malls and malls with smaller non name-brand stalls. There are even certain malls based on gender, for example in Tokyo there is a seven story mall filled with smaller stores for women.
I found the prices of name-brand items is generally about equal to western prices with exceptions for some brands that are cheaper and some that are more expensive.
But the fun thing about going out shopping in Japan, and this is coming from someone who generally can get bored quite easy when shopping, is that you can find pretty much anything. The variety of stores and items makes it a whole lot more interesting than in most other countries I’ve visited where one often saw the same stores and products repeated endlessly throughout the streets.
Most of the Japanese adhere to buddhism and shintoism. Although religion is not seen the quite same way in Japan as in many other countries, which makes this topic rather difficult. I will try to explain it as I had it explained to me, and anyone feel free to correct me here. But many of the Japanese consider themselves not to belong to any religion but through the year the same people often take part in shintoistic and buddhistic rituals. When they say that they do not belong to any religion they might mean that they are not a member of an religious organisation. One could say that both shintoism and buddhism has almost become a part of Japanese culture and daily life. Therefore they do not belong to a religion rather they have religion/s worked into their culture. Another thing I’ve been told from some Japanese friends is that as Japanese you should partake in the common “religious” customs and rituals, but if you seem to take it to serious others can become uncomfortable quite quickly.
So what is there to do in Japan? A better question isn’t there to do in Japan!
Firstly there is lots to see, even more to eat and probably a matsuri (festival) of some sort going on somewhere close by. So just start by walking down the streets of wherever you are and getting lost (no worries, see the people). Which is my preferred way of getting a feel for a place.
I’m not going to list everything you can do in Japan, but will mention a few examples of the different things I have done and will cover them more in depth in separate posts.
- Watched a robot cabaret with bright neon lights, screaming Japanese business men and tourists, flowing sake and battling geishas riding mecha-dinosaurs at the robot restaurant.
- Visited the world largest fish market in Tsukiji Tokyo.
- Stayed with monks in a buddhistic monastery on the tranquil mountainside of Koya-san.
- Soaked in an onsen (hot spring) nestled between two mountain walls in Kurama.
- Climbed Mt. Fuji (twice).
- Watched dj-battling Elvis impersonators having a dance of in Yoyogi park.
One thing is for certain and that is you won’t needlessly be bored.
If you’re polite and try to observe the customs in a monkey see monkey do fashion then you won’t have any issues because, in my experience, you get an A for effort as a visitor to Japan.
I will try to list certain customs that might be good to know but this part will probably be edited as I come to think of more.
Since I’m from Sweden the no shoes inside thing wasn’t new to me but I’ve seen people from other countries having some issues with it. To put it simple always take of your shoes when entering someones home or a temple. When in doubt take look at the entrance of whatever you’re planning to enter and if you see perhaps a row of shoes or slippers be prepared to take yours of. Another place where you remove your shoes is before testing clothes at a store, there is often a matt for you to stand on inside the stall. On one occasion I entered a stall to try something on while leaving my shoes outside. When I exited I noticed that the staff had turned my shoes to face the other way and tidied up the laces.
I know most of you probably have heard a lot of random facts about Japan and most of them are probably true. For those of you that haven’t: Welcome to the internet!
To me Japan is a country of opposites in harmony, the new with the old, futuristic and traditionalistic. Bright neon lights next to ancient temples, lolita gothic teenagers next to kimono clad ladies, huge noisy arcades next to immaculate minimalistic gardens….
I can only share my view from my own experiences, but to find out what Japan is you have to go there and see for yourselves!