Carolyn visits Japan
So you have been thinking about going to Japan for a while...
The culture interests you...
The scenery looks amazing...
So, why haven’t you been yet?
Let me take a guess...
- You're not sure about the food. They only eat raw fish, right?
- How are you going to travel around? The pictures I've seen of the subway show it perpetually rammed.
- How am I going to communicate? I can't learn Japanese at short notice!
Am I right?!
I reckon these 3 questions (among others) may have come up when discussing Japan as a possible holiday destination.
Well I could rattle on about all the wonderful sights, the temples, the shrines, Hakone National Park and the amazing views of Mount Fuji, walking the old Samurai route on the Nakasendo Way, the moving experience of the Peace Park at Hiroshima, having afternoon tea with a Maiko, going to the Sumo, the great view from the Skytree in Tokyo...but I am not going to do that!
View to Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi, Hakone National Park
I am going to go for a more practical review of my recent trip to Japan and prove that it really should be very high on your list for your next holiday.
Let’s start at the beginning – Japan's expensive right?
Local cost of living is very reasonable and Tokyo was recently named second only to Cape Town for the most cost effective tourist cities in the World. There is loads of “free” stuff to do – you can spend at least 2 days in Tokyo paying for nothing other than your transport – also very reasonable as the clever people at Inside Japan provide you with a Manaca card pre-loaded with a reasonable amount to get you started - it's the same principal as an Oyster card on the tube.
If you don’t feel ready to tackle the subway on arrival then taxis are very economical, clean and even have doors that open and close automatically.
**Top Tip ** Always get a receipt from a taxi driver – if you leave anything in the taxi the car can be easily traced.
Eating out is fun in Japan with so much to choose from – some of it you cook yourself such as Okonomiyaki (somewhere between an omlette and a pizza) about £10 with a beer. The Katsu curries are also very good – around £12 with a beer. The Korean BBQ, yakitori (skewers) Ramen (noodle soup), tepanyaki, wagyu beef, sushi & sashimi, tempura and donburi are all well worth trying – trust me even the fussiest of eaters will find something to their liking.
Hamarikyu Gardens, Tokyo
A great option is the casual pub or Izakaya frequented by the businessmen after work, one of our most enjoyable meals was in one of these establishments under a railway arch in Tokyo.
One other thing we had better clear up as well: no tipping. Not at all! The price is the price. One of the things we get asked most often is how much should we tip. In Japan, its very simple: nothing!
So the next question is usually “is it safe”. I can honestly say that for a major world city there was absolutely no evidence of pick pockets or any crime at all. Bags were totally safe on your back as was anything in your pockets. The Japanese are hugely respectful and operate on a 'treat others as you wish to be treated' ethos.
**Top Tip** there are no towels or hand dryers in the toilets everyone carries their own facecloth sized towel.
Afternoon tea with a Maiko in Kyoto
So, back to transport and the trains – oh what a pleasure – on time every time! The stations are huge and usually have a shopping mall within them. The Shinkansen (Bullet Train) tracks are very well signed in English and you will have a seat reservation with a carriage number and a seat number – should you have a last minute change of plan there are usually a couple of unreserved carriages towards the rear of the train. Every platform has markings to signal where each carriage should stop so there is no charge up and down to try and get to your carriage you can be waiting ready to board at the correct spot – so simple and so effective in reducing the stress levels.
**Top Tip** if you have an early start the bakeries in the station are amazing and very well priced – do try a curry donut if you get the chance (they are really good, honest!).
While we are on the subject of train travel – I know what you are thinking: 'I don’t want to spend 2–3 weeks lugging my suitcases on and off the trains'.
**Top Tip** Japan has a super efficient luggage forwarding service.
I would really recommend making use of – so you ask at the hotel reception and they fill in the paperwork for you to send your bags to your next chosen hotel. If you only have a 1 night stop you would skip that hotel and send your bags to the next one and just travel with a hand luggage bag. This works particularly well if you are going to be doing any of the point to point walks. Worth noting that a next day service is a little pricey but a two-day service is really reasonable. What a pleasure to arrive at your hotel with your bags waiting for you.
Miyajima Island, Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate
So now the subject of hotels has come up – there is an enormous choice of accommodation options 5* internationally known brands such as Park Hyatt and Ritz Carlton, 3-4* well located and well priced options, the rooms can be a little cosy in the budget hotels but they are always clean and the bathrooms good.
You can also opt for a traditional “Ryokan” stay – I would absolutely recommend including at least one of these in an itinerary. Breakfast and dinner are usually included and dinner is an elaborate multi course meal – you may need to be a little braver than usual but it was all delicious. Just a note that any severe dietary allergies need to be made known at the time of planning your holiday so we can select a Ryokan that can cater for you.
Your room is more like a mini home, tatami mats on the floor until your futons are laid out for bed, some even have their own private hot spring baths so you can bathe in seclusion. There are few etiquette rules with hot spring baths so if you do not have your own in your room at your ryokan stay be aware that the majority of shared baths do not allow clothing and men and women are segrogated.
View across the gardens of the Imperial Palace
As far as language goes English is widely spoken in hotels and tourist areas and all of our guides were very knowledgeable and well spoken. If you do end up looking a little lost or just merely consulting a map someone will come and help you – whether they speak English or not it is a great experience in the universal language of pointing!
The people are just amazing – so kind and considerate and just an absolute pleasure to travel in their country.
Kinkaku-ji, officially named Rokuon-ji, is a Zen Bhuddist Temple in Kyoto, Japan (also known as the Golden Temple)
A huge thanks to Matt from Inside Japan for giving me such a fantastic experience of a wonderful country. It's lovely to know our customers are in such good hands when they travel to the far east with Inside Asia.