Visiting Japan was an absolute pleasure. For many reasons, we were grateful we went there after China.
While China is impressive with its massive infrastructural growth in a short period of time. It has not brought the society along at the same rate. Where Japan is gentile, China is brash. Where Japan is spotlessly clean China is grimy. For some contrasts you can read about my views of China by clicking here.
Japan is unique. Over the last 25 or so years while it's been trying to recover from an economic disaster the society has remained resolute and has not lost its humanity. The people are gracious, helpful and polite.
It's like Switzerland on steroids. Managing to maintain outstanding standards with a large dense population cramped into concentrated areas like Tokyo and Osaka.
Our trip was over 26 days and included Tokyo, where we stayed in Kawasaki (close to relatives), Hiroshima, Saga (trying to book last minute over a public holiday weekend we couldn’t find any reasonably priced hotels in Fukuoka or Nagasaki so used Saga as a base to visit them), Kyoto (from here we visited Kobe and Nara) and Nagano.
From Tokyo we visited Mt Fuji and Hakone before heading to Osaka and back to Malaysia.
There is a security presence but it's muted and not “in your face” like in China or America. Government employees are helpful and appear to be proud of their jobs. A great example of this was the tram conductors in Hiroshima who run up and down the tram attending to various tasks. Then getting back to their station to make announcements and collect the fares.
There is not the need at every railway station to have your bags X-rayed and your body frisked. While I assume still maintaining the same level of security.
Japan is clean and well organised. In a country of about 120 million people it is unusual to see homeless people or beggars on the streets and there is little litter.
There's an interesting paradox in Japan, while public litter bins are very difficult to find in Japan there's hardly any litter. Whereas in other countries where there are many litter bins there's lots of litter!
We found them to be gracious, friendly and helpful. With smiles and offers of help. We were helped on many occasions.
Standing at vending machines confused at how to get and then top up our Pasmo (metro) cards. Standing around helplessly looking at railway schedules and maps. Being led to a ticket office to buy bus tickets.
On one occasion on the train to Yokohama I was gazing up at the station guide trying to make sure that we were going in the right direction. When a young girl leaned across and said "can I help you look confused?" I replied " Thank you! I know I'm on the right train but am I going in the right direction? . She confirmed I was and leaned back in her seat. As she was leaving the train at the station before ours she stopped and handed me two wrapped sweets saying "a welcome gift from Japan I hope you enjoy your stay".
Trains in Japan can be confusing. There are many (especially in Tokyo) and they are managed by different companies. Following the app Hyperdia (with JR Pass activated) will eliminate a lot of stress.
The 7, 14 or 21day JR Rail Pass is an excellent investment. Worked together with Hyperdia (with the JR Pass activated) you can hardly go wrong. It is in English and is free for a month.
The app will prevent you from using the Nozomi, Mizuho and Hayabusa Shinkansens which are excluded from the Rail Pass. These trains are faster and more expensive but there's always another Shinkansen or JR option.
On our first trip we ignored Hyperdia and boarded a Nozomi for Hiroshima. The conductor was understanding. He wrote out the details of the trains we should take and their times (it agreed exactly with the Hyperdia suggestion). He then allowed us to get off at the next station and not pay any surcharge. Another experience of understanding and graciousness which we found in Japan.
The train system can be quite confusing in places like Kyoto. There are many lines, many platforms and sometimes even the numbering is not that easy to follow.
Sightseeing and Attractions
First stop is the travel information centre at the station or airport. In the major tourist towns, they often have good ideas of the best (and the cheapest!) ways to visit local attractions.
Tours are expensive and the schedule is not yours. To make sure that you visit the best attractions, Google sites like Viator (part of TripAdvisor) and see the itineraries of their tours. Google “best things to do in ….” and you’ll have more than enough resources.
Attractions usually have attentive and engaging staff. Many of the famous sites are very crowded. In the afternoons groups of school children arrive and there's a never ending stream of young people. They are well behaved and well organized but there’s so many!!
Try to visit in the mornings during the week.
Day or special passes can sometimes be obtained from bus stations, tourist information centres. As an alternative to a Hop on Hop off tour (and much cheaper!)
Japan is not cheap. But by making hotel reservations early. Being aware if there are any events that may increase demand for hotel rooms and using AirBnB’s costs can be brought down to a reasonable level. Overall the costs are similar to travelling in Western Europe.
So they are not really that expensive … just relative to the rest of the Far East.
Sometimes we had breakfast included in the room price and sometimes not. Generally we ate 2 meals a day with some snacking in between.
Our general complaint in Japan was that public WiFi is limited with limited pay for use options. We didn’t expect this in a country that is so advanced in so many ways.
We purchased a Freetel data only SIM from BIC camera so had data.This was not an ideal solution as we didn’t buy enough data and had to recharge with the only one premium priced option - 500MB at Yen1 050 (US$10). Quite a limited choice in such an advanced first world country.
- If on a JR Rail pass use Hyperdia with JR activated. If not on a JR rail pass use Hyperdia with the JR not activated - use the trains suggested by the app and don’t be tempted to second guess it!! You will suffer the consequences … doubt and confusion.
- To miss the crowds visit popular sites in the early morning.
- The quantity of litter is in inverse proportion to the number of bins
- Japan should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. Excuses could include 2019 Rugby World Cup or 2020 Olympic Games.
- Buy a SIM card as soon as you arrive. Plan your data requirements and rather buy too much up front at the lower price.