I haven’t written a scrap since returning from Europe. Nothing seemed special enough. Even though New Zealand has an amazing backyard to explore, we have been everywhere several times, so it kind of takes the magic away. Then we went to Japan last year in September and it was certainly special but it was a really intense, full on trip that I promised myself I would write about but never did. That is until lockdown and I woke up one rainy morning and thought, “I’m going to write about Japan”.
The one thing I can say to you if you are thinking about heading to Japan is this. Do your planning.
I’m more of a wing it sort of person, however I worked at the time with a lovely lady Dianne, who was obsessed – in a nice way – with Japan. So whenever we worked the same days together, she would inundate me with information and travel tips, guilting me into actually doing my own planning, and as it turned out, it was a very wise choice.
The one piece of advice everyone seemed to impart was, ” Buy the JR Rail Pass”. At first glance it appears to be extravagantly expensive, however, there are great tools online associated with the JR Pass which help you map out your route and figure out the exact cost of your journey. Whilst there are other alternatives to the JR Line, these are either really expensive or cheaper but slower and Japan is vast.
All up we had three weeks in Japan so opted for the 14 day JR Pass which excluded our time in Tokyo but incorporated the more expensive parts of our route later in the trip. This worked out perfectly for us as in Tokyo we choose to stay in a area that connected to the Subway rather than the JR Line so we still had to pay to get around anyway. Also, after Tokyo we headed to Takeyama and the Onsen towns near the Alps which the JR Pass would not have covered. Just work out your itinery and work out what works for you.
The other piece of advice I really took onboard was to book my accomodation in advance. Now we did travel when the Rugby World Cup was on but there are bargains to be had if you book in advance and it does make a difference if location counts and your budget is tight. Tokyo for instance is divided into several different districts – all of which offer something worth exploring. For Doug and I, we wanted to be close to the excitement of it all, but not IN it, so it’s worth knowing what district you want to be in.
Accomodation in Japan is usually hotel based or the more traditional and often cheaper Ryokans which are mostly family based accomodations. Don’t be put off by a listing describing a “Business Hotel” as these are usually nice, compact hotels with great breakfasts included at a reasonable price. Even if you are prepared for the smallness of the rooms and beds in your hotel, the reality is quite surprising. A tip I learnt was when booking, check on the actual measurements of the bed, as sometimes a double bed in Japan can mean a generous single meant for 2 small Japanese.
The Ryokans are much more traditional with futon beds on the floor and seated tea areas on bamboo mats and shared dining rooms where you sit cross legged on the floor. A bit of a challenge if your legs don’t cross quite the way they used too!! Ryokans can also mean shared bathroom facilities more like the traditional bathhouses or Onsens. Personally we mixed it up to ensure that we had a good cutural experience whilst giving the backs a break from the harsher Futon Beds.
Culturally wise, the Japanese are just the nicest, most respectful people you will ever meet. Japan runs like clockwork. If the train is scheduled for 1pm it will arrive at exactly 1pm and it will have been cleaned to within an inch of it’s life. Japan is scrupulously clean with mechanical street sweepers on every corner and its certainly a change of scene for us having spent alot of time in Asia where the rubbish tends to meet you at the doorstep. “Activewear” is not a familiar phrase or dress code in Japan, so pack light on these normally essential travelwear items and include more casual, chic, clothing. Depending on where you will be in Japan and on what time of year you are travelling – this will dictate what to pack,- but for September we wore light, dressy, walking clothes with a casual cardigan or sweater for the cooler evenings.
The food in Japan is outstanding however it’s the strict lines between the cuisines on offer that most fascinated me. If your restaurant makes Ramen then the restaurant will only serve Ramen and sometimes only Miso based Ramen. We went to a small family run restaurant in Matsumoto where they only served Soba Noodles and had done so for generations before. The size of each establishment also blew me away. Most only seat 10 persons max and we even came across bars for just one. Even though it wasn’t our thing being major foodies, if the budget counts, and believe you me – Japan is expensive – you can pop into any Seven Eleven, Convenience Store or even stop in the street for a vending machine meal that will actually blow your mind. If however recycling and saving the planet are high on your priority lists, maybe Japan is not the place for you as everything comes packaged. If you buy an apple – it’s packaged. My Seven Eleven meal will come in a beautifully packaged plastic container with little condiments in several smaller packages of cuteness but utterly wasteful.
Overall we absolutely loved our time in Japan, we loved the people, the cleanliness, the politeness and the food and I particularly like the Sake. We really hope you enjoy some of our stories too.