Japan: What the guide won’t tell you

Less than 24 hours have passed since i traveled half way across the world, leaving behind one of the most amazing places I have been blessed enough to be able to visit.

Japan has overwhelmed my senses so much and in so many ways that I could probably write an entire book about it. I am wrapping my head around the highlights of my trip, about which i will write in more details soon, but for now i will simply share some observations on Japan and its people and some useful info to help you visit this wonderful country.

L1210246L1210152Over two weeks, we traveled across the country by train and bus through Mt. Fuji, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Tokyo. It’s easy enough to personalise this fairly touristy route, and we chose to add day trips to Nara, a few days in the beautiful island of Miyajima and a more than indulgent lunchtime trip to Kobe (literally, lunch time).

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So, if I had to use my experience to give some advice to friends traveling, or considering a trip to japan, here’s what I’ve got for you:

When to visit? We just about missed the cherry blossom season, but fear not, as it took little away from how beautiful and fascinating our trip was. However, If that is on your bucket list (as it should be), try to visit late March, early April. If Autumn is your time to shine though, the amount of maple trees that adorn parks, gardens and city lanes are bound to guarantee a wonderful show of color between September and October. Summer is extremely hot and humid. Judging from the high temperatures and the mild discomfort we experienced in early May, I would suggest you avoid June-August if you don’t cope well with heath.

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How should I travel around, and is it as difficult as they say?  We travel our entire route through trains and a couple of buses. IT COULDN’T HAVE BEEN ANY EASIER! There are signs in English everywhere, and we used this super useful and user friendly app called Hyperdia to check timetable and select trains. I suggest you download it before you go. Also, if you are hopping from one place to the next, get a JR pass at JRpass.com . They cover either 7 or 14 days and are valid on pretty much all trains of the JR company, including bullet trains. When you buy it, you will receive a confirmation slip by post and you will need to activate it upon arrival in a JR office. We did it at the train station of Narita airport. You simply flash the pass at the train gates, with no need to purchase extra tickets. The Hyperdia app has an option to select only trains and buses  which are covered by the JR pass.

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For certain trains, especially the Shinsanken (bullet trains) you might want to reserve seats in advance (at least 1 or 2 days earlier). To do that simply show your pass and indicate the train you wish to catch at any JR ticket offices around the country and they will print some seat reservations for you.

Also, i was told by many people to travel light because there are few elevators and many stairs in Japanese train station. Anyone that has met me before knows that “traveling light” is not a thing for me, soooo, if like me you love to keep your outfit options open and plan for the unexpected,  i can happily tell you that you have nothing to worry about! There are elevators or ramps pretty much everywhere. The only occasions when Bartek had to carry our luggages up and down stairs was when he missed the gym or when we were too lazy to walk to the nearest elevator.

Take some cash and activate your credit card to be used in Asia – i personally found it useful to carry cash, especially to buy street food or souvenirs (even though many souvenirs shops, even small ones, will accept visa). All hotels and Ryokans accepted our visa no problem, and we took cash out a couple of times at the many 7elevens available. Most places won’t accept Maestro, some shops did not accept visa, but I never had any issues with Amex. Japan is super safe so don’t be afraid to go around with a lot of cash if you want to be extra safe.

Bring Western medicines. You’ll be able to find paracetamol and tissues in many 7eleven or Family Marts but to avoid the headache of deciphering what the box says , bring your basic necessities, especially if you are traveling with a man prone to man flu issues (ladies you know what I mean)

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There are no trash bins in Japan – TADAAA! Ok, I might be over dramatic here,  there are a few trash bins, but trust me, after you’re done sipping that take away coffee or eating that matcha cookie, you’ll be carrying the reminders with you for a good few hours, or even a whole day if you are somewhere fairly remote from civilisation. While grabbing a delicious sushi dinner with our airbnb hosts in Tokyo, we tried to dig into this and find out why. Apparently the answer is that Japanese people just don’t like producing trash or seeing it around their cities and parks, even when neatly organised and hidden in bins. Therefore, they tend to carry small plastic bags with them. I suggest you do the same!

Surprisingly, the general level of English is fairly low – This will not impact your ease of travel, as there are signs in english everywhere and the staff at train station, airports and other transport hubs, as well as many hotels does speak english, however there is a surprisingly large amount of the population that doesn’t speak even basic english. We had some issues in our ryokan in Kyoto and a few shops, but other than that, this just proved to be a curious puzzle to solve. It might be that they are just shy, but most likely the Japanese society is still too close and inward looking for english to have taken a stronger hold. Judging from the eagerness of small school children to say hi and take pictures with us, this might change soon!

While we are on the subject, I invite you to notice how totally random english words are used to name things like clothing brands or restaurants, and how cute some of the english signs in the train stations are  (they love to look out for our safety)

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Get portable wifi – If you are using airbnb to book your accommodation (and you should, cause it’s awesome!) you’ll find that most apartments offer portable wifi. This is cause there is very limited public wifi available across Japan, and having internet is super handy to check train timetables or routes to temples, shops and restaurant when you are on the move (uhh uhh no english remember????) We booked our portable wifi on the same site where we booked our JR Passes, and picked it up super easily at Narita airport on arrival.

Don’t be afraid to take a nap on public transport! Japanese people LOVE sleeping on trains and subways. Clearly this is cause Japan is super safe, and they work crazy hours, often commuting. Nonetheless, being from Italy, where you are most likely to wake up without you shoes on, or miss your stop, I was so amazed by their proficiency at it! Not only can they sleep in every possible position (i swear to you I saw a guy sleeping while standing up – i recreated the scene for your entertainment below), but they can magically wake up just before their stop. There were so many people sleeping that we made a game of who could spot the most in each trip. On one particular night, we were even lucky enough to be joined by a few local girls, it’s cool to see that they don’t take themselves too seriously 🙂

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Keep an eye on that bicycle: So yeah, sorry about this, but Japanese people suck at cycling on the road. There’s no visible cycling path, so it is not unexpected, especially in Kyoto, to see people rushing towards you at great speed on the walking paths. Just keep an eye out and get out of the way, i guess 🙂

Bring comfy shoes and if you are over 1.60 cm in height don’t bother bringing heels. You’ll walk a lot, clearly, but you’ll always be able to see above the crowd and never worry about missing whatever action is going on ahead of you. Local girls are very well dressed for the most part, especially in Tokyo, but even when they are wearing heels you’re likely to be at least a head taller 🙂 There are many beautiful walking and hiking paths, so be prepared. Japan’s nature is one of its most amazing assets.

Take the chance to meet some locals and explore new places, beyond your guide – One of the greatest experiences of our trip was to have dinner with our local airbnb hosts in Tokyo (check out their listings in airbnb, they are super fun people and I highly recommend booking with them and meeting them in person!) . Not only we got to ask them lots of questions about Japanese culture and the way they live and see us Westerners, we also got to eat real japanese food, things we would never otherwise order or try, and we got to explore parts of Tokyo which were not in our lonely planet, but which still retain that local, unspoiled vibe so beautiful to discover when you are traveling

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Kind of obvious, but even if your are a picky eater, please try as much stuff as possible! I will write a special post about the food during our trip, but there are tons of delicious dishes, with obvious suspects like sushi, down to more bizarre and unique things. I suggest that you are open minded and try many different things. If you cannot stomach fish you should  man up or change destination 🙂

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There are probably a thousand things I forgot, but please feel free to ask more specific questions  about our experience, or details about where we stayed, in the comments section.

To summarise, this is, in my humble opinion,  what Japanese people are good at:

  • Trains and transport
  • Food (more about that soon)
  • Saying thank you and welcome and generally being super polite
  • Helping tourists
  • Sleeping on trains
  • Gardening (more about that soon)
  • Using random english words to name their brands
  • Puppies (definitely more about that soon)
  • Hot baths

And these are some of the things they kind of suck at (but we still love them)

  • Trash bins
  • Staying aware on trains
  • Riding bycycles
  • English

More to come on my trips to Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo and Miyajima 🙂

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One thought on “Japan: What the guide won’t tell you

  1. It’s actually a great and useful piece of information. I am satisfied that you shared
    this useful information with us. Please keep
    us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

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