Witness the magical interlude of the ancient and modern colliding in an oddly poetic and graceful dance. Planning a trip to Japan is half the magic
Describing Japan is like trying to describe a dream you had. It’s frustratingly inadequate as you search for description and explanation and making sense to the listener of what you have barely made sense of yourself.
Once you have made your plans for Japan you get to see it first hand. It is indescribable and no matter the words I attempt, they do it no justice.
Prepare yourself for something so extraordinarily cultural and mystifying. This would be a vacation like no other you may have experienced.
How do you describe a place with so much nuance and delicate suggestion? Our English vocabulary just cannot capture the fluidity of thousands of sensory perceptions. It is impossible to deliver any lucid translation of things seen and experienced. Such is the magic of this land of the Rising Sun and its ethereal flow.
So what should you do and see when planning a trip to Japan?
Japan is vast with many regions and sites to explore. I would suggest that your visit to Japan can never be a one-off. It is more like a book of 1000 pages that you will absorb in chapters.
Of course you have the natural attractions of nature and the outdoors, including Mt Fuji. Obviously, Japan is a country of great religious and traditional culture as well. Therefore you have a selection of hundreds of potential shrines to visit, temples, castles and museums. The cities are their own spectacle – shopping, parks and historic sites.
A great thing about Japan is, you can plan and theme your vacation in many ways. If it is a spiritual journey, that would be completely different, by way of location and accommodation to a journey of historic discovery, interest in culture and a passion for technology. The list goes on. Yes, you can certainly get a taste of all these aspects but you will need to do some real thorough research and careful travel planning.
The Spiritual Vacation to Japan
A spiritual journey is, of course, very personal. And it does not have to be about embracing Shingon Buddhism. Japan’s spirit is the essence of what Japan is. The foods, the connection with nature, the aesthetics are all part of that spirit. If you seek relaxation, harmony and calm, then perhaps this is something for you. The rituals of cleansing and calming are fascinating.
Shinrinyoku is the name for something called Forest Bathing. The concept may not be new to you as other countries have adopted the practice. It simply is about going deep into the forest and taking in the peace and quiet, enjoying the tranquility of natures stillness with natural life.. Here you would indulge in komorebi – a simple aspect of dappled sunlight leaking through the leaves of the trees. How calming could that be?
Naked Communion known as hadaka no tsukiai is another Japanese pursuit that seeks restoration and calm. This is done in a natural hot spring pool, known as an Onsen. In this pool, you bathe naked with friends, family or with strangers and bare yourself both physically and spiritually, removing barriers and being able to communicate with others. Probably not for everyone, but you can of course get along there without strangers if you so desire.
Meditation at the Temples
Embracing the spiritual aspects is a big part of it. If you are adept at meditation and it is something you enjoy, than certainly a visit to one of the many temples would be in order. The temples offer a quiet and thoughtful recluse with Zen rock gardens.If you’re looking for a place to unwind, temples offer a refuge from the outside world as well as an opportunity to experience meditation. There are also numerous festivals and ceremonies to partake in to expel the negatives and bring in the harmony. Your time in Japan can be a full-time spiritual journey if you wish.
How safe is Japan, generally?
When planning a trip to Japan, or anyplace for that matter, safety has to be considered. Happily, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world to visit. This does not mean you should take it for granted that no crime exists, of course it does.
But, fortunately, as a tourist traveling as a couple or as a man, you do not feel you have to travel with paranoia and fear, just with merely a sense of normal caution that you would exercise in your home cities.
How safe is Japan if you are a woman traveling solo?
However, being a woman traveling alone in Japan can bring unwanted attention. As a woman and as a foreigner, you can have an uncomfortable feeling when alone. You are something of an exotic. American and British TV shows have made you become a curiosity and, for some, an object.
Men will stare at you, as will many Japanese women. There are also those men known as chikan, which means “groper”. These perverts are usually found in the crowded areas and known to try and ‘cop a feel” in the crowd.
Sadly, protection from these people is not really forthcoming and most people would just walk on by. Also, as a woman, be wary of the nampa (pickup artists). Friendly strange men may be just that, but there are those who target and prey on foreigners.
Does this mean that Japan is not safe for women travelers? No. But it does mean that you need to be on your guard and to avoid situations where you may be vulnerable. As with any society, there are those individuals who have bad motives or compulsions.
The good news is that the population of Japan have a far improved sense of safety since 2001. The locals are the true indicator of what is really happening and this data speaks volumes…
How Cheap is it to travel to Japan?
Honestly? It’s not cheap. Japan can be expensive. If you are traveling through Asia as a budget tourist, Japan will be a bit of a shock for you with the costs. Planning a trip to Japan will mean that you have to be very focused on how much money you will actually need.
Even staying in hostels, eating street food and shopping at a supermarket, your daily costs will be upward of $60-100 per day. If you are looking at mid-range travel in Japan, you would be spending $100-150 per day on your hotel accommodation which would be average/lower end and a couple of decent meals and transport thrown in. Luxury travel – the high end….well, the sky is the limit, really.
A premium hotel could be as expensive as $250 + per night and if you are actively seeking to do everything – see shows, travel through the city and beyond, the costs go up accordingly. One couple I know well, traveled to Japan and spent 10 days there. They did not have expensive tastes. They simply wanted an equitable hotel and travel experience they would enjoy in North America. They came away with spending $3500 on just accommodation, transport, a few dinners and lunches along the way. Naturally this did not include their flights. So, like I said, Japan can prove expensive. It really is not a destination for anyone on a very tight budget.
Accommodation choices in Japan
The first thing you need to know is about the hotels when planning your trip. They generally charge per person. Yes, that means that the rate quoted is just for you. Your partner will cost the same. So, effectively double the price to know your full costs. There are a wide range of choices with how you stay in Japan. Hotels are…well, just hotels.
But what if you want to have a more local experience? AirB&B works in Japan as well. It’s a great way to enjoy a city and go shopping for yourself in the supermarkets (a lot cheaper than dining out). You also have the choice of guest houses, dormitory style accommodations and, of course, the traditional Japanese hotel called a Ryokan which is usually found in more rural areas but, can be found in the cities too. A city based Ryokan can be very expensive.
I would suggest that any plans of a trip to Japan should include the ryokan,The traditional ryokan can be quite a cultural experience. Evening entertainment could include a Geisha performance. They could have themes that represent an era in Japanese tradition or they could simply just be Japanese lodgings.
Temple Lodgings – Shukubo
This is for the hardcore spiritualist seeking enlightenment and embracing Buddhism. Some may argue that not to be so, but unless you are into morning prayer or observing it, living like a Monk and meditating, it is likely this would not be for you. No WiFi and no TV. You would most likely have shared bathroom facilities and vegetarian meals served.
Perhaps it is worth doing a bit of spiritual and body cleansing along the way in your travels of Japan but, certainly, you need to be into the whole vibe and not just looking to try and save a buck. On that note, a shukubo is not cheap anyway. You could be paying from $70 upwards for the pleasure.
These establishments started out as simply an internet cafe and a place to read comics. However, things have evolved into much more. Now, especially in Tokyo, you can pay for your internet access, get drinks, get a private booth with a computer and a reclining chair where you can nap or sleep overnight. Communal bathroom facilities are usually available in such cafes, along with lockers for your luggage. You can rent a towel and a blanket for a nominal fee of around 200yen ($2) and you can get ready made noodles or chips if you’re hungry. Ideally this is a last resort type of option for accommodation but useful if you are stuck with no place to stay or missed your train/bus. A full package of 20 hours will set you back around 3000yen ($30 ).
*** Be aware – these cafes can be a bit seedy. They are clean but they are used for purposes other than watching TV, DVD’s or reading comics. As your neighbors may clue you in, these compete with Love Hotels.
The Capsule or Pod hotel is probably one of Japan’s most written about and video recorded tourist accommodation concepts. Simply put, you get a human locker in which you have a bed, TV wi-fi within a tiny cubicle, generally 2 by 1 by 1.25 m (6 ft 7 in by 3 ft 3 in by 4 ft 1 in). Likened to morgue drawers by some, the concept is really to have cheap accommodation and saving space. Some cube or pod hotels can offer a little more in the form of a secondary pod beneath your sleeping pd where you would have an area to “lounge”.
The facilities are gender specific, with a women’s section kept apart from the men’s section and the communal bathrooms are also separate. You could also find a unisex internet and lounge area available. Costs can vary but usually start from 3000Yen to 8000Yen ($30 to $80) per night. Not for everyone, but it is a reasonably economic way to have accommodation in a well positioned part of the city. If you do not have issues with close confines then maybe it is something you want to consider.
20 Things you must know when planning a trip to Japan
- Don’t rely on your credit card. While the big department stores and some restaurants will accept your card, in Japan, cash is King! You have access to auto cash machines in the major cities but you should have a good amount of cash on you. The most reliable ATM’s will be found at the Post Office.
- Technology and Japan go hand in hand. However, it will surprise you to learn that WiFi is not freely available. You will find it at some places like Starbucks and at the airport and train stations, but generally not all over as you may expect. You can buy a data sim card in Japan (strictly data as you cannot get a mobile # unless you are a resident) or you can get a pocket WiFi . This is perfect for easy travel connectivity – you just need to make sure that the device is charged and, of course, you have to carry it around with you. The costs vary but generally you will be looking at a plan from 5 days onwards. The more days you buy as a prepaid, the less it will be. For 5 days it will cost you approx 900-1000 yen – that’s approximately $8 per day.
- As Westerners, we are very conditioned to tip for service. Sometimes we tip even when there was bad service. It’s in our Westernized DNA. Well, in Japan, DO NOT TIP! The society is such that they may find your gesture offensive. There is no tipping in Japan.
- Get a JRP – Japan Rail Pass. It is quite an outlay to start off with but it will save you a ton as the days and weeks go by. But you must get this BEFORE you travel to Japan. You can ride many of the regular and the bullet trains and it’s a great way to travel Japan – efficient and effective. Your alternative to this would be the SUICA card which you can recharge at the railway stations.
The Suica card is useable on public transportation in many of the regions of Japan :
– in the subway
– on buses
– on all local trains
***Important! the card will not work on the shinkansen, any of the express trains, airport shuttles or the long distance buses. The card also functions as an electronic wallet. You can make small purchases on trains, in vending machines, convenience stores and restaurants.
The card can also be used to pay for lockers and taxis at stations.
- A Suica card is set up for immediate use. The card is credited with 2,000 yen ($20)(including a 500 yen ($5) obligatory deposit). This deposit can only be claimed back in Tokyo, run by JR East stations.
- You can also keep your Suica card for future travel. It will remain valid for 10 years.
- Do not walk and eat in Japan. The action of walking and eating will earn you disdainful stares and some may even scold you. It is considered incredibly rude. Buy your food and go to a place where you can sit – on a bench or stand but don’t walk and eat. There is a market which caters for food to go and there is acceptable to eat and walk. But only there!
- Always have your passport on you. You will need to present it to the train ticket officials with your Japan Rail Pass but also, it is proof that you are a foreigner so, when buying duty free items, you don’t pay taxes. Nice!
- Don’t assume that Japan is like Europe in ANY WAY! It is culturally very different and even going to the bathroom can be an experience. English is not as widely spoken as you may assume either. Menu’s may be in short supply in the English language and honestly, it’s really good to try and pick up some useful Japanese phrases.
- Wearing of shoes in someone’s house is generally a no-no. You need to take off your footwear in most temples and private homes. They usually provide slippers for in house and bathroom slippers for the ablution areas.
- Smoking is still a very big part of Japanese society. Which means that you may find yourself in a restaurant or bar and engulfed in 2nd hand smoke. There are now laws that are requiring non-smoking sections in these establishments but the protection is minimal in many cases. Also, if you’re a smoker, walking with a lit cigarette is illegal. This is really due to the proximity of people in the city streets and less to do with clean air. Lit cigarettes could easily brush up against your skin or clothing in crowded areas.
- Trash cans are like gold. You cannot find many. It would be smart to have a trash bag with you to throw out the used Starbucks cup or food wrapping. And do NOT litter!
- Planning a trip to Japan needs some homework. Try and learn about the culture. There are many nuances and small aspects about Japanese culture that can be very rude or taboo. Things as simple as chopstick etiquette is important. Or taking the hand-towel they give you before eating – you use that for your hands only.
- Be careful when buying clothing and shoes. As Westerners, we are much bigger on average and our clothing sizes back home cannot be used as a reference in Japan. Their small or medium will be really small. Their large will be medium (at best). If you have big feet like mine (Size 12)…forget about it. Unlikely you will find any shoes your size.
- In most restaurants they will not give you a “doggy-bag” or takeout of your meal. The sizes of meals are not big so it would be unlikely you would need to take the leftovers. They insist in not allowing this practice due to hygienic reasons.
- Avoid trains between 8am and 9am and 5pm-6pm. This is rush hour. It is insane. If you are claustrophobic, hate crowds or have luggage, this is not a time to travel on the trains.
- In restaurants, they will place the bill at the table after you have ordered. At the end of the meal you go to the cashier and pay there. Don’t call the wait staff in order to pay.
- Blowing your nose (into a tissue) is considered really rude in public. You would be glared at or spoken to if you did this. You should rather sniff then blow your nose in public.
- Don’t point! Using your finger to point is considered very rude…even if pointing to a place. You can indicate with an open hand, but never a pointed finger. On that note, NEVER point with your chopsticks when you are trying to express something.
- The Japanese drive on the left. They also walk on the left and they ride escalators on the left, leaving the right for those in a hurry
- Spring is a great time to go to Japan but it is also the time for local tourism and the cherry blossoms in late March. You will need to book in advance and expect crowds. The Fall is also a great time for your Japanese vacation. The months in the middle are super humid and hot, depending where you are.
- The Japanese are quiet. Even when they are drunk, they have a ‘party for one’ quietly. With thin walls and close proximity of city dwellings means that you need to be very aware of your alarms, phone, music and voice levels. On the public transport, the rules of Japanese quiet etiquette apply as well. Don’t be having conversations on your phone or yelling with your mates. Assume that any ‘loudness’ from electronics or your voice are taboo.
The Fun Stuff
Personally, I think Japan is way more fun than Disneyland. Sure, it has some incredible amusement parks, including Disneyland, but it does things so differently to what we know in the West, it’s a daily wonderland.
Maybe it’s the geek man child in me but I love vending machines. If you do too, Japan will become your fantasy land. Apparently, the statistic is that Japan has over 5 million vending machines that deliver a whole array of products.
You can buy hamburgers from the machines, cigarettes, coffee, ice cream, noodle soups, energy drinks, eggs, umbrellas, fish soup, socks and oranges. Actually, there are thousands of products available.
My least favorite is the puppy vending machines. That makes me a little tetchy, to be honest. See a cute puppy? Buy it. Urgh.
There is also a lucky dip vending machine. Put in the money and you have no clue what could come out. As long as it’s not a puppy…
The hotels are also fun. You can find dozens of theme hotels – Jurassic Park, Hello Kitty, a robot hotel known as Hen-na Hotel (meaning strange).
I would call it strange if an English speaking dinosaur checks me in and robot maids clean my room. How fun is that?
When planning a trip to Japan, these top cities are perfect to experience the country’s sheer diversity
Tokyo – Urban, legendary, technologically advanced, trendy, thrilling.
Kyoto – Traditional setting. If you are interested in Japanese culture from a city that was once the capital of Japan for over 1000 years, then this is the place you want to visit.
Osaka – Known for its incredible cuisine, Osaka is a vibey and charismatic city that appeals to anyone who enjoys entertainment and food. Great for kids and adults alike.
Hiroshima – It’s history is well known. Known as “The City of Peace” this is a place for a reflective and calming pursuit
Okinawa – Not a city but a region comprising of 160 islands. A sub tropical climate with all the values of a beach destination with swimming, diving and water-sports
Sapporo – A winter destination. Famous for the February snow festival with snow and ice sculptures.
Traveling the world sightseeing is a fantasy for most of us. And planning a trip to Japan offers the visitor so many attractions and so much variety. I would suggest creating a bucket list just for Japan and deciding what activities and sights would really excite you and then building those things into your itinerary.
Go to a traditional Buddhist prayer service
Shibuya crossing– The most insane intersection in the world. Watch and be a part of 2500 people crossing the street
Visit Harajuku: An area in Tokyo for eating, shopping and observing
Visit Hiroshima Peace Museum
Visit Itsukushima Shrine – The Island Shrine
Stay in a ryokan: a traditional Japanese inn that has existed since the eighth century A.D
Visit sake brewery
Explore Kyoto’s Gion district
Visit Ryōan-ji Temple
Visit Kyoto’s Ancient Sites
Hike the Northern Alps
Soak in a Natural Hot Spring
Visit Kyoto’s Ancient Sites
Temple City: Historic Nara
Chūbu-Sangaku National Park and the Japanese Alps
Shikotsu-Toya National Park with Lake Toya and the active volcano, Mount Usu
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Japan is a vast country, even though not large. (145,883 sq mi). It is long and thin with (18, 486 miles) of coastline. The nation itself is made up of 6 852 islands. Whilst slightly bigger than Germany, what it packs inside is staggering. The ancient history, the incredible culture and the futuristic outlook makes it a heady blend of what was, what is and what will be. Planning to travel to Japan should be a really exciting prospect for you and when you get there, I guarantee you will be thinking about a trip to return.