Confession time: I wasn’t that bothered about Japan as a destination. Whilst pretty much everywhere in the world features somewhere on my “I’d like to travel there” list, Japan certainly wasn’t a priority for me whereas Craig had always been keen to go. A quick straw poll among friends who list travelling as a vice revealed a curious gender divide when it came to Japan: the boys were all keen to go (or had been) and the girls seemed to share my ambivalence.
I was wrong. So, so wrong. Girls, we need to have a rethink. The boys are on to something here.
We only spent a relatively short time in Japan – I’ve met a couple of people who have spent months or years living in the country and feel they have barely scratched the surface of this intricate, fascinating country – but it was enough to allow me to be certain of one thing. I love Japan.
One of the first things that had entranced me – before we even set foot in the country – was the variety on offer, even over our relatively short itinerary. Over just eighteen days we managed to hike up volcanoes, wind our way through the Japanese Alps, visit giant metropolises and spend time on a beautiful island. Whether you are a city kid or prefer the fresh mountain air, Japan can probably cater for you. Our days were spent doing everything from reading manga to hiking to playing arcades. No two days were the same, and our itinerary was jam-packed but invigorating.
The accommodation also kept things interesting. Whilst we’d done hostels in Sydney, a camper van in New Zealand and a treehouse in Laos, our endless stream of guesthouses throughout South East Asia had become a bit… same same? Japan allowed us to mix it up again – we stayed in a ryokan, a capsule hostel and a, erm, love hotel.
As a bit of a foodie, Japan also made me very, very happy. Whilst I was familiar with most of the dishes we tried – from tempura to ramen soups – what really impressed me was the consistently high quality of the food and the pride the Japanese take in their exquisite cuisine. The emphasis on seasonal cooking is not only sensible but ensures that food is made from the freshest ingredients and is the best it can possibly be. Some destinations can be guilty of restaurants catering exclusively to passing “tourist trade” that no local would touch, where the only thing guaranteed is crap food and a miserable dining experience (as I’m sure anyone who has ventured into one of London’s West End steakhouses will testify). This is not a thing in Japan – every restaurant we visited had a local presence (a good indicator of decent food) which made dining out a joyfully spontaneous and fulfilling affair. From our delicious gourmet lunch in Tokyo to Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki, every meal was a genuine pleasure. Although navigating a menu where we didn’t even recognise the alphabet was sometimes a challenge, we found that most places had an English menu (often only produced once we came inside) or at least had some helpful clues outside the restaurant…
Yip, model food is fairly normal here. I’m not sure vegetable soup looks especially attractive in rubber format but it was a good idea and avoided any big surprises. We also enjoyed the “ticket machine” style of ordering – common in quick-order joints – where you’d press a button on a machine that had a picture you liked the look of. Although we came a cropper once or twice (accidentally ordering a plate of soup toppings without soup was a particular highlight), it made for an entertaining experience.
Japan is also an incredibly interesting place to simply experience. I don’t mean the temples and castles – lovely as they are. The intricacy and thoughtfulness of almost everything, everywhere really shines through here. From the extra large windows on train routes through scenic areas to tiny details such as beautiful painted designs on admission tickets, nothing seemed to have been built or created without appreciation for aesthetics and care for the experience of the user. Nothing was slapdash, or sloppy and it’s hard to emphasise just how striking and pleasurable this is to experience up close.
Other aspects had the additional pleasure of being slightly, delightfully bonkers – such as the toilets which offered music among their bewildering array of options. We went from squat toilets in Burma to complaining when a toilet didn’t have a heated loo seat in a dazzlingly short space of time. How quickly we adapt to our surroundings.
Although we were pleasantly surprised with the overall costs of Japan (we came in just under our budget of £50 per person per day), it still isn’t a cheap destination and there were a couple of minor frustrations during our trip.
Japan is not a place for the unorganised visitor. The thriving domestic tourism industry and relatively high accommodation costs meant we sacrificed a certain amount of spontaneity during our time here – we simply couldn’t afford to turn up at a city and assume we could afford a room. This was even more pronounced given we were travelling during cherry blossom season, and we were forced to commute in to destinations with accommodation shortages such as Kyoto. Even the brilliant Japan Rail Pass needs to be ordered and delivered before you arrive in Japan, which thankfully we were able to take care of in Chiang Mai.
The relatively high costs also meant we were restricted on time. Although eighteen days allowed for a brilliant sampler tour of Japan’s many delights, I’m sure we could have happily stayed longer. Still, I guess that means we’ll have to go back. There is still the ski scene in the far north, and I’d love to scuba dive in the tropical warmth of the far south. I may have arrived in Japan indifferent, but after our amazing eighteen days I left as a huge fan.
If you want to travel to Japan
How long should I visit Japan for?
The only thing limiting you is budget and free time. From a quick city break in Tokyo to a two or three week holiday (or longer!), there is plenty to keep you enthralled in Japan from the moment you arrive.
Japan Rail Pass tips
- Most visitors will use a Japan Rail Pass, which is available in 7, 14 and 21 day units. Once activated, the pass lasts for 7, 14 or, funnily enough 21 consecutive days. It’s an expensive outlay, but far cheaper than paying for tickets individually. If you plan to take more than one intercity service, it’s probably worth buying.
- The Man in Seat 61 is a useful starting point for explaining the Japanese railway system. The Hyperdia website then allows you to plan a potential journey and filter by Japan Railway only so you can see how long a journey can take using the Japan Rail Pass. Although useful, the search filter isn’t great at guessing or suggesting station names. For example, typing in “Osaka” doesn’t bring up its main train hub which is known as “Shin-Osaka”, so just watch out for that when plotting a route.
- The Hyperdia website is also available in app format for free, but this is only valid for 30 days so you might want to save it for when you are in the country before activating it!
- A Japan Rail Pass can be ordered online from a number of different ticket sellers, and prices can vary quite a bit, so it’s worth shopping around. We paid about £243 each for our 14 day pass (plus a 2 day FedEx delivery which was £19) from Japan Rail Pass.
- It’s worth plotting an initial itinerary for Japan and then considering how you’d best use a Japan Rail Pass. For example, you may plan to stay for two weeks but actually spend five of those days in Tokyo and two in, say, Osaka at the end of your trip. That means only seven days of travel in which case a 7 day Japan Rail Pass may suffice and save you money.
- If visiting a specific area of Japan you may also want to consider pairing different types of Rail Passes. The seasonal Seishun Juhachi Kippu, for example, gives five days of unlimited rail travel and works out about £12 per day. Two people can use the same ticket at the same time (using up two of the five days at once). If you plan to spend a couple of days doing shorter local journeys you could use this and then activate a Japan Rail Pass for longer, intercity journeys and again, this could be the difference between a 7 and 14 day Japan Rail Pass. See what I mean about needing to be organised?
- The Japan Rail Pass only covers travel on Japan Rail trains (hence the name) – other train companies aren’t covered. Given Japan Rail’s extensive network we never found this to be an issue, and you can use some of the shinkansen bullet trains (although not the superfast Nozomi ones). Again, Hyperdia allows you to remove this train as an option when searching journey options.
- Booking tickets is easy – most stations have a ticket office. We would write down the date, train time and type and the destination (Hyperdia tells you all this in the journey planner) in a list and then go to a ticket office to book the tickets free of charge. Most ticket office staff speak some English, and tickets can be booked minutes before a train departs. That said, most trains also have an “unreserved” carriage for more spontaneous journeys and we never struggled to get a seat.
Japan Accommodation tips
- If visiting at a popular time of year, such as Golden Week or any other holiday season, book accommodation as soon as you can. Kyoto, for example, completely sells out weeks, if not months, before Cherry Blossom season.
- As well as using the usual booking.com and Agoda, we also used other travel agencies to book our accomodation. We’d recommend trying Rakuten Travel and Asia Travel as well as AirBnb if you need to widen your search.
- Japan also has a range of “business hotels” which cater primary for those away on business. We tried the Mystays branch in Kanazawa during an opening special offer and were really impressed. Rooms can be on the small side in business hotels but they are a clean and comfortable accommodation option worth considering.
- Don’t forget to try some of Japan’s unique accommodation options – capsule hotels and ryokans are a fun and memorable experience. We’d highly recommend the budget-friendly ryokan we stayed in!