Welcome to the Around the World Interview series on Ordinary Traveler! Every couple of weeks we will have a new guest who has either lived or spent an extended amount of time in a particular country. Each guest will give valuable insights and tips to a different destination around the world.
This week, Lash from Lash World Tour shares her Japan travel tips!
Japan Travel Tips: Everything You Need to Know
How long did you travel in Japan?
I left the USA in 1991 with my best friend, soon after university, specifically to move to Kyoto, Japan in order to work and save money to travel the world. I lived there for 6 years, until late 1997. I taught English plus a few other odd jobs. I had loads of free time since I only had to work 25 hours/week teaching for a full salary!
So I completely immersed myself in traditional Japanese culture. I studied kimono wearing, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, aikido, taiko drumming, koto, and shiatsu massage. I performed taiko, koto and tea ceremony publicly several times.
I attended as many traditional performances, festivals and tea ceremonies as possible. I continually explored Kyoto’s 2000+ temples, shrines and gardens plus all it’s old neighborhoods, hidden cuisine restaurants, and nearby mountain temples and onsen. I was fascinated and never lost my excitement.
I traveled as much as possible around the country, visiting all four of Japan’s main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu. I cycled a lot of it, took loads of trains and several ferries. I visited about half of Honshu, cycled around Hokkaido, Awaji island and saw small parts of Kyushu and Shikoku.
I also took a tropical vacation to the remote Okinawa island, Iriomote. I climbed the North Japan Alps, Mt Fuji, and Daisetsuzan NP in Hokkaido. I marched up dozens of mountain top temples.
So I guess the short answer is that I traveled extensively around Japan for a solid 6 years.
I returned to Kyoto in 2001 for 3 months to sell imported goods from Bali and Thailand. I traveled all over Japan again to attend Trance Festivals and also sold stuff at several of Kyoto’s monthly temple festivals. I saw lots of new places in Japan on that trip.
Budget tips for Japan?
Japan is extremely expensive. Everything there is expensive, including accommodation, food, transportation, clothes, toiletries and personal goods. So my first tip is to take everything you’ll need with you from your home country. Try to avoid buying stuff in Japan- except souvenirs. Another idea is to take a shorter trip.
Editor’s Note: I actually managed to take an inexpensive trip to Japan. For in-depth tips on saving money, visit our guide to Japan on a budget.
The cheapest accommodation you’re going to find is at minshuku (like hostels) and capsule hotels (only for men). Lowest prices in 1990s were 3000-5000 Y per person / $30-50 US.
Prices could be the same or higher. Matt Kepnes reported 2500Y, but I never heard of that in the 1990s. Perhaps more guest houses or western style hostels have opened since I was living there? If you’re on a budget, try to find free accommodation via Couch Surfing, Tripping, or other hosting/traveler services.
If you can live on (udon or soba) noodle soup or ‘rice bowls’ (bowls of rice with meat on top, that’s the cheapest way to go. 400-800Y / bowl. About $5 US, minimum. In Japan, 7-11s have an excellent variety of great healthy food and meals!
There are ‘rice balls’ onigiri, (actually triangles) filled with bits of veg or fish. There are fully wrapped take out meals. If you can cook at a minshuku or person’s house, buying groceries and cooking is slightly cheaper than eating out. AT most restaurants, meals generally cost 800Y and up / $10 US.
Transportation is so expensive in Japan that companies pay for their employees monthly transportation passes! I think my train pass cost $300 US/month! I was sure happy my school paid it!
Some tips to save money
Don’t travel around Japan too much. Just pick one or two areas, spend your time there, and minimize transportation.
Cycle. Japan is one country where cycling can save you loads of money in transportation.
Before going to Japan you can buy monthly and weekly train passes, for foreigners only, that will allow unlimited train travel. You can only buy them outside Japan and before arriving.
During Japan’s 2 yearly school holidays, there are special train tickets for students called Ju-hatchi kippu. ’18 tickets’. They allow unlimited train rides for one day- 24 hours- on local trains. If you schedule your train connections accurately, you can travel travel between, say Kyoto and Tokyo, in one day on local trains. It’s a long, arduous process, but it saves a lot of money. One catch is that you have to buy a pack of tickets, I think 10, so it’s only worthwhile if you’re going to travel several days.
Favorite places or favorite experiences?
My best friend and I discovered Yoshino, a ridgetop village / tourist spot about 3 hours south of Kyoto by train. Yoshino is famous for cherry tree bark products, onsens and mountain temples. I’m not sure how we discovered it, but we returned a few times/year, mainly because we found a ryokan (Japanese Inn) with an onsen (hot baths) that allows day visitors to its onsen.
Generally ryokans only allow overnight guests to use their onsen, so that was a great treat. Even better, they had a big cask of sake beside the baths and little square wood cups to drink it with. You could drink all the sake you wanted with your bath! In reality, you can’t drink much alcohol while bathing or you’ll get sick.
We would take day trips to Yoshino in different seasons to hike in the forests, listen to conk horns blowing around the mountains, browse the lovely cherry bark shops, eat traditional food, and sit in the onsen drinking sake all afternoon.
Eventually, we also made Yoshino an annual pilgrimage to celebrate our ‘anniversary of arriving in Japan.’ We would take turns paying for an overnight stay at our favorite Yoshino Ryokan. It became a very special spot for us.
What is the food like in Japan?
Oh, man, there is such an astounding variety of Japanese food that never reaches N America. In addition to a huge selection of year round, daily cuisines to chose from, there are also regional and seasonal foods. Most regions and cities in Japan are famous for one food or the other. Fall, winter, spring and summer each bring their own special cuisines, based on seasonally fresh produce and sea products.
I could write a book explaining all of them (oh, that’s an idea!), so here I’ll just list a bunch which are especially delicious and perhaps a bit unknown. I’ll leave it to the readers to investigate what they are and where to get them:
One great thing that makes eating in Japan easy: every restaurant has a display window full of realistic-looking plastic sample meals. You can see everything they serve. On the other hand, you might not understand what any of them are, since signs and prices are in Japanese! But you can point to order.
Better known foods: sushi, sashimi, yakitori, yakiniku, miso soup,
Lesser known foods: okonomiyake, udon, soba, donburi, saba, gyoza, o-cha-zake, umeshu, onigiri, yaki-imo, yaki-soba, yaki-udon, shabu-shabu, age-dashi-dofu, edamame, chawan-mushi, Japanese ‘curry’: kare ricu.
If you can bear it, try the traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, grilled fish, miso soup, sour pickles an seaweed. Yummy! Probably will only find this at minshuku and ryokan.
They make amazing dishes with more unusual vegetables (for westerners): eggplant, pumpkin, radishes, sweet potatoes. They also have an astounding variety of dishes made with miso and various soya products,including many kinds of tofu. It’s a great country for vegetarians.
Japan also has astoundingly delicious bakeries full of a huge variety of breads, pastries, desserts. Mostly you won’t know what they are, but just try a few. Some are delicious, some very very odd.
Dos and don’ts regarding customs?
Don’t point at people or touch their heads.
Don’t eat in public, including on buses, subways and trains. Long-distance trains are entirely different. Passengers take boxed lunches and happily eat on board. A huge variety of take out meals are on sale at train stations.
Don’t groom yourself in public, including combing your hair or cutting/filing your nails. Japanese will be appalled and very uncomfortable.
There are lots and lots of complicated social etiquette and interpersonal customs. But Japanese don’t expect outsiders to understand them, so you’re basically off the hook.
Favorite place to stay in Japan?
Yes, but none of them are cheap. While I was living and working there I could afford to occasionally visit some top end ryokan with onsen. They typically cost 18,000- 30,000 yen per PERSON, not per room. At 100 Y/ $1 Us, that was $180- $300 US in the 1990s. Now the yen is 79 Y/$1 US. If anyone’s interested, I can recommend a couple I’ve visited. Drop me a line.
One of my favorite places I’ve EVER stayed in my life is at a temple complex at Koya San- Mt. Koya, which has a sprawling monastery/ temple complex on top of the mountain. They have rooms for guests in traditional wood buildings with tatami mats, painted sliding doors, and Japanese-style beds, and including elaborate dinners and breakfasts served in your room. It cost 5000 Y/ person. AT the time, $50 US, which was astoundingly cheap for Japan. At today’s rate ~ $60 US.
Things to do in Japan?
Must Do Activities
Go to a sento (public bath house)
Go to an onsen, preferably in mountains, and preferably drinking sake froma square wood cup visit a castle, a temple, a royal palace see a tradtional performance- either Kabuki, Puppet or attend a tea ceremony and try whisked green tea and Japanese sweet cakes attend a festival in Kyoto experience a department store opening! Check out the department store food floor.
Have someone put a kimono on cherry blossoms in may autumn leaves in September.
Must see sites
Kyoto -2000+ temples, shrines and gardens
Safety tips, warnings or things to be aware of?
Japan is an exceedingly safe country. That’s not to say there is no crime at all, but it’s almost exclusively tied to Yakuza activities or family/relative issues. I’ve never heard of any foreigner being targeted for any kind of crime. So in terms of safety and crime, nothing to warn you about Japan.
Traffic is on the left, like the UK and Australia. If you’re from N America, be very very careful crossing the street and look LEFT first.
Japanese are extremely punctual, like Germans, and appreciate the same in return. That also means all trains and buses run exactly on time. Don’t be late or you’ll definitely miss it!
Best and cheapest times to visit Japan?
There are no cheaper or more expensive seasons in Japan. It’s just evenly expensive year round.
So you might want to plan your trip to Japan based on which weather seasons you prefer or else some special Japanese customs, festivals and events. Japan has a four season climate, like N America and Europe. Japanese tend to make even more out of differences in seasons by having special activities and foods.
Especially busy travel seasons for Japanese domestically are New Year’s, end of April/early May between school years, July and August is school holidays, so masses of college students and high school students on school trips horde long distance trains and famous Japanese sites like Kyoto’s temples.
Astounding change of leaves colors. In mid September in Kyoto, a bit earlier further north.
In Kyoto, Jidai Matsuri (festival of ages) and great autumn cuisine
great skiiing in Japan Alps and Hokkaido, but avoid weekends!
Amazing time to enjoy onsen and ryokan in mountains. Sit in a hot spring surrounded by snow, drinking sake!
Seldom snows in Kyoto, but when it does it’s gorgeous.
New Year’s Eve is entirely different in Japan, and amazing to join in Kyoto.
Cherry blossoms in early May
Beautiful spring change of colors March-May
Aoi Matsuri festival in Kyoto.
Great festivals in Kyoto, including Gion Matsuri, Fire Festival, and cormorant fishing at Arashiyama
Packing tips for Japan?
As I mentioned above, since Japan is so expensive (especially with the current super strong Japanese yen) it’s going to be immeasurably cheaper for you to take any/all toiletries, electronics, clothes, and personal items with you from your home country. If you need to buy anything in Japan, you’ll quickly be astounded at the asking price! Avoid wasting your money on toiletries and pack your own.
In terms of clothes, it depends entirely on the season. Four seasons like Europe and N America. July and August very hot and humid. Winter same as Europe/ USA/Canada.
One thing to note, at least out of curiosity, is that Japanese generally are immaculately dressed and groomed from head to toe. Sparkling clean well-coordinated clothes, hair, make-up, nails, shoes and skin. They take pride in their clean ‘proper’ appearance, which to them looks professional and respectable.
Overall, the N American habit of wearing super casual ‘bum’ clothes like faded jeans and t-shirts looks very scruffy to them. However, they don’t expect foreigners can keep up to their standards and are accustomed to foreigners’ different habits. They won’t be offended, they’ll just wonder why you’re dressed like a bum and don’t take better pride in your appearance.
Besides all that, Japanese youth for at least 2 decades now has been dressing in all sorts of extreme, wild outfits, from all-out punks, goths, to low-down rapper and rasta style. Therefore, more conservative Japanese have also become accustomed to a huge variety of fashions in their own country.
Basically, just dress however you’re comfortable. But while in Japan take note of how immaculately groomed, dressed and ‘dressed up’ everyone is. I absolutely loved it and fit right in, since I’ve always been one to get dressed up head to toe and have never taken to the casual jeans/t shirt culture.