I am a confessed travelholic -together with my impulsive airfare sale deals and my role which involves a bit of international travel – I am never really in Melbourne for more than a few weeks.
I have a lot of friends that have spoken highly of Japan – it’s culture, sights, people, cuisine, anime, music and the list goes on – but it still didn’t jump out at me as a country I wanted to visit in the near future. In fact, I remember last year having a conversation about it with a few colleagues where I was quite vocal about how I don’t really understand why people rave about it so much.
But as life would have it, there was a pretty incredible sale that made traveling to Tokyo cheaper than a trip back home to New Zealand. Still unsure about the county and always conscious about using my annual leave strategically, my fiance and I took a nine hour flight to spend five days in Japan in mid-August.
After spending one day in Tokyo, I had to bite my tongue because Japan was amazing!!!
In our five days there we managed to squeeze in Tokyo, Kyoto and a day trip to Hiroshima. This may sound extreme but I am a very planned traveler – i.e. the itinerary was planned to the very hour including trains to catch (with the next train details in case we missed it). Our days were long – 16 hours long – and we covered almost 100kms by foot and 1500 km by trains. I would definitely term it an adventure over a ‘holiday’ or a ‘vacation’ but hey relaxing are for weekends?
Here are my top few tips if you plan on visiting Japan (which I would highly recommend!)
1. Take a Bullet Train
A little bit of admin advice first! If you plan to travel outside of Tokyo the Japan Rail Pass is the best value for money. As a tourist, you can get a pretty sweet deal on the JR pass for 7 days, 14 days or 21 days, which allows you to do unlimited travel on the specified trains during your time in Japan. I think I did the calculation and if you were doing one return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto it would already make the JR Pass a better deal.
I have had my fair share of train travel – both long hauls and daily commutes. I have had journeys in India where the sand from the desert is blowing in my face and sticking to my face, I have been squashed until I could barely breathe on the trains in Rome. I have had some average experiences on the trains of Australia, New Zealand and Russia. On the other hand, the long haul trains between Paris and Milan were possibly the best None of these will ever compare to the bullet trains in Japan.
Travelling at 320 km/h makes covering different cities in a short time an absolute dream. What frustrates me about train travel is often it is quite loud and that mixed with the voices of hundreds chatting just doesn’t make for a good combination. This is where Japan impressed me the most – quiet fast trains and no one talks (in trains, or anywhere really)!
The trains look sleek, they are immaculately clean, and getting on them is a breeze when everyone waiting formed a line – one straight line – and once seated no one spoke a word. I feel the western world has so much to learn from the Japanese. We all know that they are at the top of the game in terms of technology, but I think their way of living is also something to aspire for.
2. Stay in a Capsule Hotel
For most of our time we stayed in Air BnBs but for a bit of ‘taste of Japan’ we wanted to spend a night in a capsule hotel. Capsule hotels were initially for businessmen to spend the night when they had missed the last train home. It was actually very hard to find a capsule hotel which catered for both male and females and once we had – we found out that we couldn’t even stay on the same floor.
So we checked in, swapped our shoes for the provided slippers (all the shoes were stored at reception) and proceeded to our separate floors. The female only floor was protected with a pin code at the door! The best way to describe my capsule was like a little pod, with a small tv, an alarm clock and a pull down curtain. I’d say I prefer it to a hostel because the small enclosure provides the privacy that you don’t often get in dorm rooms. I was unfortunate enough to get a capsule next to a snorer so my night wasn’t the nicest, and because workers stay at hotel – a lot of alarms were going off at 5 AM.
It is safe to say that I would only recommend it for one day as an experience.
3. Try different Japanese dishes
We were having five -six meals a day, partially because we were walking so much but mostly because it was pretty damn delicious. Here are a few to add to your list:
- Bento Box from a train station
- Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market
- Match Tea
- Oysters at Miyajima Island
- Moon cake
There really isn’t much to add to this point and you really shouldn’t need convincing. A room to do renditions of your favorite high school tunes and lots of glasses of social lubrication to help you not remember any of it? Yes please!
You know what wasn’t fun? Re-listening to the recording we had made of each other singing ‘I See Fire’ and thinking we were on par with Ed. *cringe*
5. Get Cultural
You have to be careful to plan your itinerary to ensure you get a good mix of cultural sights with the rest of it. There are far too many beautiful shrines and temples in Japan so it is important to pick the ones you really want to see and to space them out so that you’re not bored of just temples or shrines (I made this mistake in Bali and ended up cutting out a few temples just because I needed a bit of variety to my day). There were two temples that really stayed with me.
In Tokyo, we stayed a one minute walk from the Sensoji temple and thought it was simply spectacular. In the afternoon it is packed with people scrambling around the shops in front of the temple. Among it all, we were lucky enough to bump into five Geishas on our very first day! At night, it was still a bit busy with people walking through, but the large lanterns were lit up and the area was transformed. We even saw it at the break of dawn when no one was around except for one photographer and a model doing a shoot.
In Kyoto, it was the Sanjusangendo temple with its 1001 statues. This temple wasn’t initially on the list but one of our Japanese friend back in Australia recommended it and we are so very grateful that he did! As Hindus it was fascinating to see the linkages between Hinduism and Buddhism, and this was possibly why we were so in aw of this place.
6. Wear a Kimono
…because you feel like a Japanese doll and you realize just how many layers are underneath it all.
7. Take the Shibuya Crossing
We watched people cross at least six or seven times both during the day and at night. It is so mesmerizing just sitting from above (Starbucks has a pretty great view) and watching the hundreds cross.
I tap my order into the screen in front of me, it gets delivered right to me and I don’t have to talk to anyone? Dream!
9. See Tokyo from above
I am yet to go to NYC but can imagine it is probably the only other city that would compare to the concrete jungle of Tokyo. There is nothing like standing on top of a building, looking at the city in front of you and realizing just how small and insignificant you are in the big big world.
As I am always out for the best deals – you can skip Tokyo Tower and go to the Metropolitan Government Building for an incredible view of Tokyo.
10. Immerse yourself in the culture
Japan is an amazing country with a unique culture- appreciate it. Go to the seven story sex store near the train station in Akihabara, check out a tea ceremony in Kyoto, catch a Tokyo subway in peak hour, constantly say arigatou gozaimasu to everyone you meet, visit Hiroshima and learn how the Japanese were affected – and still are today, talk to new people, and eat lots and lots of different, weird and wonderful things.
If you don’t come back from Japan and buy a dymo to start labeling every single thing in your house – have you really been to Japan?