It’s now been six weeks since we left the UK. After our time in China (click here for my travelguide) we headed to Japan. Here’s a brief summary (check out our couple of seconds a day video on youtube!) of the time we’ve had there and hopefully some hints and tips for those of you that fancy visiting in the future.
Did you know?
- Japan aka “Land of the Rising Sun” is made up of 6,852 islands.
- It has a population of 127 million people (10th highest in the world) and Japanese people make up 98.5% of the total population (rather un-diverse).
- They have 1,500 earthquakes every year.
- More than 50,000 people are over 100 years old (their birth rate is so low adult nappies are sold more than baby ones).
- Japanese trains are very punctual, their average delay is just 18 seconds.
- Ronald McDonald is called Donald McDonald due to a lack of a clear “r” sound in Japanese.
- Tipping in restaurants is considered rude.
Where did we go and what were the highlights?
STOP 1 – Osaka
- Arriving at Osaka airport we got the train from the airport to a subway station which was conveniently located right underneath our hostel. Subway stations in Japan have lots and lots of exits, you take the wrong exit and you can end up five streets away from where you need to be. Luckily we picked the right exit (#6) for our hostel!
- Stayed 9 nights at Fuku Nagomi Namba Hostel (£16 per person per night) which had THE friendliest staff, a lovely kitchen/chill area and was right next to the main attractions in the city. When we left Fuku they gave us a lovely origami note as a keep-sake, it’s really the little touches that make a stay great.
- Osaka is famous for it’s food. We were absolutely in our element, check out my post on what you can eat and where you can eat it.
- Aside from eating we also ticked off the popular tourist spots in Osaka such as the castle which we climbed to the top of and got a great view of the city alongside learning about Japan’s Edo history. Just round the corner from our hostel we went to the National Bunraku (imagine Japanese puppets, the ones with white faces) theatre which has a very small but free exhibition explaining the ins and outs of the traditional art. I visited the National Art Museum on my own one rainy day… probably wouldn’t recommend that one, nothing special.
- As we were in Osaka for 8 days we had a few day trips out of the city. The first was to Nara where we were greeted off the train by freely roaming deer that own the streets and the huge park. In the park is the tranquil Todaiji Temple which contains a huge bronze Buddha statue. The second trip was to Universal Studios. We hadn’t planned on visiting the studios, however when we learned that it had it’s own Harry Potter World, we just couldn’t resist! It was definitely worth it, truly magical. Finally we ventured out of Osaka to Kobe where we climbed a part of Mount Rokko passing a beautiful waterfall and herb garden. It was just the breathe of fresh air we needed from the hustle and bustle of the city.
STOP 2 – Kyoto
- Arrived by train from Osaka to a subway close to our hostel.
- Stayed 5 nights at Piece Hostel Sanjo (£21 per person per night) where we finally had separate bunks which was an absolute luxury (no offence Rob…). This hostel was very suave, the social area downstairs could rival a swanky coffee shop. It was located in the heart of the Gion with access to hipster restaurants, clothes shops and take away sushi places. We rarely needed to eat out there as we would pick up something cheapish from a local store or Nishiki market and eat in the hostel social area with a can of 7/11 Sapporo or five.
- Arriving in Kyoto we started to plan what to do in the city. High on the list was the Fushimi Inari shrine which is made up of thousands of red gates leading up a mountain in honour of the ‘God of Rice’. However we had learned from other travellers that this gets stupidly busy with tourists. On our first evening in Kyoto we decided to go visit the shrine in the dark. The views may not be as spectacular, but you could walk through the gates in relative peace and quiet, only passing a handful of others. Just beware of wild hogs, we were warned of these before going and 100% heard a snort in the trees causing Rob to run and hide behind me (what good that would do I don’t know!).
- Other cool areas to hit up in Kyoto are Arashiyama where we walked through the bamboo groves, visited Tenryuji Temple and it’s stunning gardens and Maruyama park where we walked through greenery and winding Geisha filled streets to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, stopping off along the way at the WW2 buddha memorial.
- On our final day in Kyoto we wanted to escape the city and climb a pilgrimage route through a forest to Kurama-dera temple. Unfortunately when we got there the route was unsafe due to damage by the recent Japan typhoons. It really was a shame. To compensate and make the most of a rare clear blue sky day, we took a long walk from Demachiyanagi station along the Kamo river back into town.
STOP 3 – Tokyo
- The last stop on our Japan trip, we arrived on a seriously comfy Shinkansen bullet train (200 mph) from Kyoto and then hopped on the subway to our hostel.
- Stayed 5 nights at Bunka Hostel (£24 per person per night) situated in the Asakusa area above a restaurant that gives free ‘sake of the day’ to hostel guests.
- Whilst in Osaka we met an American guy who luckily gave us the heads up about an art museum we had on our Tokyo hit list. He warned us to pre-book otherwise we’d be disappointed. Taking note, two weeks in advance to arriving in Tokyo we went onto the Mori Building Art Museum website and pre-booked our tickets. As luck would have it the first free day was our second day in the city. If I recommend doing one thing in Japan, it would be this. The museum uses interactive technology to help you experience nature. It was so clever and compared to many art galleries, it was fun! The only issue, as with many places in Japan, was the amount of posing and picture taking.
- Other key things we did in Tokyo were Tsukiji fish market where we had sushi for breakfast, exploring the cool Shibuya area famous for it’s manic crossing, Shinjuku where we went to the observation floor in the Government Building for free and had a superb view of the city which is mainly skyscrapers, but on a good day can include Mount Fuji (note: not the day we went…). In Shinjuku we saw Godzilla! I’d also suggest visiting the Meji Shrine which is located in Yoyogi park. This is the first temple I’ve visited where I learnt something about why Buddhists do what they do when visiting a shrine.
- Tokyo is so huge and has so many cool areas filled with funky shops, crazy themed cafes and weird attractions that to explore it all in 5 days would be impossible. But walking round the place you get this feel, that you’re never far from something absolutely mental.
How to get around?
- When we arrived in Osaka airport’s train station we got an ICOCA card (similar to an Oyster card) that you top up and use on the majority of trains and subways across Japan (excluding JR and Shinkansen).
- Trains are simply the way to travel in Japan. The subways are everywhere and easy-ish to navigate (sometimes easier than walking) and if you get stuck, people working at the stations are very friendly. Even strangers offer to help especially if you look a little puzzled, many will come over and ask if you are ok. It’s not that cheap, but not an awful lot is in Japan.
- Beware of women only carriages, many a time Rob started to queue for these on the platform, receiving some funny looks.
- Don’t talk on phone.
- Tokyo is huge, to navigate their subway system I really recommend getting the Tokyo Subway app that works offline and helps with all the changes, lines and exits.
- AGAIN use Maps.me. It’s a life saver. I will continue to mention it over and over again.
I found Japan similar in terms of cost to England. Beer is probably more expensive. But food, trains and admission into places is quite similar. We found it difficult to set a budget here as some days it would cost a lot (Universal Studios) then others it would cost barely nothing (Kobe trek… took packed lunch).
- Very few attractions are free. If you want to stay on budget be picky on what you choose to gain entry to. For example, if you have seen one Japanese garden, you maybe don’t need to see another.
- Eat out of 7/11’s, izakaya’s and get iced coffee in cans from vending machines.
What will I remember Japan for most?
7/11’s hot counter, the cleanest most high-tech toilets going (just don’t burn your bum like I did), completely matching outfits for couples and BFF’s, girls giggling and whispering for no reason (not great for your confidence), plastic food showing the dishes inside restaurants, everyone falling asleep on the subways, izakaya atmosphere and food, constant dramatic posing for photos, cover songs (lots of Elton John and Celine Dion), 90’s fashion (often felt like I was in Clueless), men’s clutch bags, the sound of wooden geisha flip flops shuffling behind you.
Japan has a lot to offer; crazy cities, beautiful countryside and friendly people, however the vanity of the place started to get to me after a while. Everything has to look perfect. This includes people as well as places. It’s a very aesthetic place and for someone who isn’t materialistic or shallow, I struggled towards the end of our stay with this. It’s quite a sad affair when people are merely going to places to get the perfect selfie and are not actually enjoying their surroundings… But I suppose I will see a lot of this on my travels and it’s just a reflection of modern times. In summary if you love food, fashion and quirkiness Japan is a place you really should visit.
It’s now our second day in Bangkok (already on my 3rd Pad Thai!) and again it’s a huge contrast. It’s great seeing the transition of cultures as we hop from place to place. We’re going to be in Thailand for two months until we move onto Sri Lanka. I know this country is a well travelled path, so if anybody has any tips or suggestions please get in touch.