We spent three weeks in Japan and I’ve only just got round to writing about it as I’m still making sense of it all…
The capital of Japan wasn’t quite as we had expected. Sure, there were colourful lights and building-sized adverts everywhere you looked, and cutesy anime characters in every shop window, but it wasn’t quite the chaotic futuristic hub we thought it would be.
Where thought there would be women in frilly outfits in platform shoes there were hundreds of men and women in suits. And, what we thought would be bustling streets of crowds were actually orderly rows of people-traffic, moving at a steady and organised pace. In fact, it was so organised that it felt a little like the whole city was a giant snaking queue.
The biggest culture shock for me was the politeness. I’d been learning to make myself heard and seen with a bit of light pushing and shouting while living in Vietnam. However, here, I had to relearn my p’s and q’s. People say please and thank you about a million times a sentence, and they bow a lot. Staff working at coach stops even bow when the coach is leaving.
Use AirBNB instead of regular booking sites.
We saved a lot of money by trying some cheaper options on AirBNB. Sure, some of them were just a load of bunk beds in a tiny apartment, but they saved us a lot of money!
Get the JR Pass before arriving in Japan.
This is a handy train pass that can get you around the entire country. However, it cannot be bought in the country, as it’s not available to locals. The pass must be purchased from outside the country and then collected once you arrive in the country.
Try the vending machines and 7-Eleven
Although it doesn’t sound very glamorous, lots of local Japanese drinks and snacks can be found here. This is one of the best ways to try unusual Japanese treats without rinsing your wallet.
Book things in advance
Japan is not a ‘winging it’ country. The Robot Restaurant can need to be booked a week in advance and the Studio Ghibli Museum may need to be booked a month before.
If you fancy a traditional taste of Japan, Takayama is great place to start. It’s a small place with a busy market with a few walking trails around historic temples. There are plenty of quaint streets, sweet cafes and old-style houses. We also noticed there were tonnes of bakeries – so always save some space for dessert!
THINGS TO DO
Try a calligraphy class
Or any traditional Japanese art class, for that matter. You will never say ‘that looks easy, I could do that’ again…
Go to a themed cafe or restaurant
We can’t promise you’ll enjoy it, we can just tell you that it will be ‘an experience’ that you won’t find anywhere else. (Warning: Maid Cafes may cause extreme embarrassment and regret.)
Visit the gardens
No one does gardens like the Japanese – they are beautiful!
Eat all the sushi
It is so tasty, healthy and relatively cheap. Plus, it’s fun picking your food off of a conveyor belt.
Get sake in a box
We still don’t know why sake comes in a box sometimes (a shot glass overflowing into a small wooden box, to be precise) but we like it.
Osaka was exactly the kind of Japan we had been expecting: buildings with huge mechanical signs, miles of crowds and so many flashing lights. Beyond the blinding first impressions, though, there are also lots of places to relax. There are a number of parks, each with its own awe-inspiring garden, lake or statue, and there’s always something going on (whether it’s a free music performance or kids practising unicycling – yep, seriously). Two other must-see places are ‘Umeda Sky Building’ (the second tallest building in the world) and ‘Den Den Town’ which is full of all sorts of anime and gaming stuff.
People do speak English
We were warned so many times that would no one would speak English in Japan but this was not the case at all. We found plenty of people who spoke English at every stop, both local travellers and staff. There were also lots of signs translated into English so we had no trouble getting around at all.
The language isn’t insanely hard
Japanese isn’t a tonal language, so you’re at least in with a chance of being understood! The only difficulty is the words are all really long. We came up with a few ways to remember the phrases though – see below.
English Japanese Somewhat useful reminder
Hello Kon nee chi wa Can he chin wag
Excuse me Soo me mas sem Sue me, my son
Please On i guy she mas On a guy she must
Thank you Or ee gat to Aw, he got to
Sorry Go men nas eye Go mend Nat’s eye
Goodbye Sy o nar ah Say your not raw
You are so welcome…
Kyoto can do no wrong in my eyes! Everywhere is extremely pretty and there are plenty of traditional streets for a window into Japan’s past. It’s the perfect place for cycling, with flat roads and futuristic bike parking areas. And, there’s always a few Geisha’s to be spotted shuffling along the streets. Our favourite spot here was the ‘Philosopher’s Path’ which is a lovely scenic route for walking or cycling.