- Travel Topics
We spent our first two weeks on the road in Japan. Here is a collection of our impressions, travel tips, and the cost break down.
It’s funny thinking back to when we were looking for cheap flights to Tokyo on fly.co.uk to Tokyo and we ended up going to Osaka at first. I think our trip would have been very different if it had worked our that way – it just goes to show how much hosts can dictate the experience. Japan was a wonderful introduction into Asian culture and has got Vicky and I even more excited about upcoming South Korea and beyond. To a large degree we were in “vacation mode” throughout most of the trip. This meant a lot of sight-seeing and a lot of moving around from city to city, which is reflected in the many articles we wrote/temples we saw. Going forward we are going to try to change it up a bit and this will alter the way in which we approach the blog.
The highlight of the country for me was the people. They were so kind and polite, we didn’t run into a single rude person in the entire country. In general Couchsurfers tend to be very open minded, but this applies to everyone we interacted with. In one instance, we even had a gentleman we met on the train walk us to our transfer in Shinjuku (one of the largest metro stations in the world), as well as compute the ticket for us.
It was interesting to observe Japanese people and differentiate them from Americans in terms of physical appearance. As everyone suspects they are a lot thinner, however, I will say that it was rare to see anyone I thought really worked out, and in the whole country I don’t remember seeing a gym – once. The style of clothes I noticed was really a lot of muted colors – black, white and grey had to be the top three. If not, it was also something muted, a muted green or brown, with few exceptions. Still, despite the lack of vibrant colors people definitely worked to differentiate themselves and dyed hair, especially brown, was extremely popular.
In contrast to the stereotypical boisterous American, the Japanese tend to be very reserved. One of our Couchsurfers remarked that he thinks Alcohol is so popular in the country because people need it to loosen up a bit. It’s somewhat impolite to announce things in the open, instead, you are expected to infer the meaning from someone very subtly. I imagine if I knew more about the Japanese language this would be even more apparent.
The food was delicious but I simply don’t value it like Vicky does so I’ll leave that to her. We ate at mostly Japanese restaurants though I saw my fair share of internationally themed places (though not like the states).
The two major religions that we interacted with were Buddhism and Shintoism, which, after centuries of coexisting have begun to blend together and branched out into many different sects. While there truly is no shortage of temples in almost every major city we went to, I really didn’t get an overwhelming religious feel from the country as a whole. In fact, of all the Japanese Couchsurfers we stayed with, I’m not sure any of them were religious. One even shared with me that he wasn’t aware of sect of Buddhism he was part of until his father passed away.
Building off of everything that Dave said I was thoroughly impressed with the transportation system. As everyone had told me the train were punctual to the minute and the entire transportation system is incredibly efficient and very easy to use for a foreigner. Though at first we did have our own little hiccups but once you get the hang of the system it really is pretty simple. With subway maps at all the station above the ticket boxes you can easily calculate the appropriate fare and with the stations labeled with both English stops and letter and number combinations it is simple to figure out.
Of course it was incredibly surprising to see how limited the English skills were. We came across many people, all of our generation, who spoke no English at all. Especially for the girls the approach here was to cover their mouths and giggle – an interesting way of dealing with an uncomfortable situation. Though many did not speak English it is true that everybody tried to help us when we approached them. I felt very comfortable around the people and wasn’t worried about being pickpocketed at any point in time. You can tell the safety level of a country when you see that people leave their biked unlocked everywhere they go. One of our hosts even went as far as to stay that Japan is the kind of place where if you lost your wallet you would most likely get it back. It is certainly refreshing to travel through such a country. The kind of place where you don’t need to constantly have your guard up and worry about being ripped off or have to deal with haggling for every item you purchase. Not once did we get bumped into or aggressively handled. As with some countries they have restaurant hosts out in the streets pestering the potential customers who go over to glance at the menu there was none of this in Japan. As this is my biggest pet peeve I seriously appreciated this. You were free to take your time to look over the menu without anyone harassing and selling you on the restaurant. I loved this part.
Let’s talk toilets. Japan seems to have the most high-tech intense toilets I’ve ever seen. With tons of different buttons and even one imitating a flushing sound, which you can regulate in intensity – even going to the bathroom was an experience. On the other spectrum there are also squat toilets – in some areas even with directions attached for us clueless Westerners. With two weeks in Japan I had both my first high-tech and squat toilet experience (as I’m sure you can image I prefer the high-tech toilets).
On to the food. There aren’t enough words (in my vocabulary) to accurately convey the deliciousness of the food in Japan. Out of our 50+ meals there we were disappointed with maybe one or two of them. Everything else, both the expensive sushi and cheap ramen noodle soups were exceptional. At no point did we have to worry about food safety or the cleanliness of the establishment. Surprisingly the food is not really that expensive Of course there are premium food options everywhere but there are also tons of cheaper food shops/cafes readily available. With an order of dumplings priced at $2.50 and soups for $8-9 it is easy to have a relatively cheap lunch or dinner. For even more budget conscious travelers the food selection at the convenience stores is incredible. With rice balls and noodle dishes that the store heats up for you a lunch can easy be had for a few dollars. Most importantly these $1.50 rice balls actually are delicious (and I will seriously miss them when I leave).
Overall Japan was an amazing country which I instantly fell in love with. For us I think it was the perfect gateway into Asian countries and culture. With beautiful historical sights, bustling cities, drool worth food, hospitable and polite people Japan was truly a pleasure to travel through and I think we will compare many Asian countries to it in the future.
If you’re just looking for a light meal, breakfast perhaps, try using convenience stores. They often have fresh fruit, yogurt, and Danishes for a very reasonable price. At the very least, we highly recommend you purchase your water there over the many machines placed around the city. Consider these two waters, one 500ml the other 2L, but each 100 Yen.
Popular convenient stores include 7 eleven (which also has ATMs and accepts foreigner cards), Food Mart, Family Mart, SunRus, and Lawson. They also provide chop sticks and spoons when you buy dishes that require them.
However the cheapest 2L water we got, for 88 yen, was at a grocery store – so shop around!
Not particularly common in the smaller cities and sometimes they didn’t accept American cards. Best places we found were 711 and the post office.
If you have belongings that you don’t want to carry around all day, you can store them at the many metro stops located around the city. They have many lockers of various sizes ranging from 200 yen to 600 yen. We were able to fit both of our backpacks in one locker for 600 Yen, which is good for the whole day.
When you go to pick them up, show the man your key and he will let you go beyond the gate to get your bags and back in so you don’t have to buy another ticket.
In a few instances, like when we went to museums (the peace museum in Hiroshima) there were free lockers, centrally located in the city, that you could store your bags in for the entire day.
We found these within the bus/train stations in every city we went to. It’s a great place to stop by, get a free map of the city, and maybe some tips on what to do.
Unlike many cities in the US, in Japan you pay for how far you intend to go, aka the farther you want to go the more you pay. Simply select how many tickets you are buying, insert the cash and it tells you available ticket prices. For example, if you insert 500 Yen, ticket prices for 230, 270, etc will appear. Select the one that corresponds to your distance (maps available above ticket purchasing machines which indicate the cost to each stop or zone) and you are good to go!
By the way, metro stops have a letter/number system like M20, in addition to the name (which makes it all the easier to figure out).
In some cases, if it’s too complicated, you can simply buy a ticket for the lowest fare. When you exit, there is a fare adjustment station and you can add the necessary yen once you are told what the difference is.
We only took a cab once one our way from a restaurant in Tokyo. The cabs in Tokyo have a flat rate of 710 yen to enter ($9) and go up by 90 yen increments every kilometer or so. Essentially, if you’re only going a short distance, the cab is a lot of money. The farther you go, the better deal it becomes, as a result of its high upfront cost.
Vicky and I really weren’t expecting the onslaught of mosquitoes we faced in Japan. A lot of temples are out in the forest and surrounded by ponds. We had Deet but honestly kept forgetting to use it and paid the price, heavily, with dozens of mosquito bites. They attacked morning, noon, and night. Don’t risk it like we did in your first few days and put the deet on.
There were a few times where we were able to get a discount (the most noticeable actually was a $45 discount we received for our ferries from Japan to South Korea). Bring it if you have it, but if you don’t you’re not missing out on much.
Japan has a ton of toilets dispersed throughout the city – many of which are western style. I did not use the infamous squat toilet once, though I can’t say the same for Vicky (who used it six times). On a side note, trash cans were very difficult to come by. At times the bathrooms do not have soap or toilet paper, so carry hand sanitizer with you and tissues just in case.
I don’t think I had a bad meal in the country. OK, maybe one in Takayama. As I mention below, English is not so hot in the country. One time we were turned away from restaurants due to lack of an English menu. In most cases, we were able to get by, by pointing at pictures on the menu. An easy establishment to order in is the vending machine restaurant where you select your dish through the machine, add the money and a ticket pops out. Just hand the ticket to the cook and patiently await your meal.
Japanese English is pretty poor to say the least. Despite it being the only language they learn in school, starting in middle school, most people, young, old, in shops, etc did NOT speak sufficient English. We uncovered a lot of reasons why this might be the case, including:
These were a few things we were told. In the end, despite the poor English, we didn’t have much trouble getting around.
As much as we wanted to use credit cards, overall we still found Japan to be a cash country. Sometimes they would accept credit cards, but about half of these times the card would get declined anyway for no apparent reason. However we did find that when it did work we got our best exchange rate + points, so I recommend trying to use it when possible.
If you are interested in finding couchsurfers in Japan it IS possible though it is not easy. Couchsurfing simply is not a part of Japanese culture and many people do not feel comfortable hosting strangers. In fact, many of the CS profiles I came across were foreigners. That said, Vicky and I were able to find couch surfers to host us for 12 out of our 15 days in Japan. If this is something you are interested in, we suggest you start early and don’t be overly specific. One of our best couch surfers was 71 years old!
If you want to know the exact details, we kept track of all our requests and the results.
Japan is one of the most expensive countries in the world to travel in and, as a result, is avoided by many travel bloggers. When we were reading about average daily costs, Vicky and I came across a lot of figures which said $160 per person, per day. We’re very budget conscious and were prepared to do a lot of Couchsurfing, so we thought we could beat this – we “budgeted” $80 per person, per day. When I say budgeted, I mean that is what we were expecting/hoping to spend. What I don’t mean is that we didn’t set off with $80 in our pockets each day, and when it was out, we went back home. We did what we wanted to do and ate where we wanted to eat, but in the back of our mind had this budget, and that kept us away from eating $50 sushi meals every night.
We kept track of every cost we had down to the purchase level and categorized it into 5 groupings:
So where did we end up?
$73 per person, per day.
As you can see, the real killer is transportation. This is largely due to the fact that Vicky and I went to so many places and as a result purchased some hefty train/bus tickets as well as the 7 day JR pass, which is a general train ticket pass good for a specified number of days and cost us $356 per person (over half our total). This is not to say that travel within the city isn’t expensive – it is, but it also easy to walk, if you’re willing. We walked most everywhere unless it was REALLY out of the way. Most days we spent 8+ hours walking.
The good news here is that if you want to go to Japan and only see a few different cities you have the opportunity to be even MORE economical. While I haven’t done the math out, I’m pretty sure that up through Kyoto (so Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto), we were averaging less than $40 a day – and then we bought the JR pass. Tokyo, surprisingly, was one of our cheapest cities (because so many of the sites are free). So, if you didn’t want to go to Kanazawa, Takayama, Shirakawago, and Hiroshima, you could cut down on your average daily costs – a lot.
The “bad” news is that we saved a ton couchsurfing, and if that isn’t your thing, then you’re going to have to spend a lot more. Two nights in a modest Takayama hotel cost us $160. Luckily, if you are down to couchsurf, we have certainly proven it is both viable AND rewarding.