We were woefully under prepared for our visit to Japan. Arriving from the Philippines, we’d spent our last day in Manila running round malls trying to extract as much cash as possible from as many different ATM’s to obtain our Japanese rail passes, cash only!
We just about managed to pull it off, but it was pretty close to the wire. Without our Japan rail pass, which must be purchased outside the country, I don’t think we’d have even begun to understand the beauty and serenity that Japan can offer a visitor. We were worried that this lack of travel planning was going to prove a costly mistake.
We had no plans, or any ideas about where to go or what to do on arriving in
Japan. We managed to take a quick look at a great travel blog, Japan-Guide that proved to be a really valuable travel resource on the Japanese leg of our flashpacking adventure. Our travels were made so much easier with the brilliant, English language, Japan rail planning site Hyperdia. If you are on your way to Japan, bookmark these two sites and you will not go far wrong.
I mentioned in our Osaka blog that our Japanese language skills never got further than a handful of words, but a little language app we downloaded helped us out of difficult situations a few times. It’s free for the basic phrases (you can buy an extended vocabulary if you want) but we got by with the basics in the free app.
Good cheap accommodation in Japan books up quickly, especially during ‘cherry blossom’ season. If your’e the type of traveller who likes to wander in off the street, then wants to negotiate a good deal, forget it. It pays to book ahead here.
On the upside, rooms are spotlessly clean and of a high standard. In Tokyo rooms tend to be incredibly small, if you are sharing a semi-double bed (cheapest option for two people) you better be tiny or get on very well.
We wanted to stay in a ‘love hotel’ for an evening. The love hotels have themed rooms, ranging from the outright ridiculous to the utterly bizarre. Alas, if you are a male same sex couple you can forget this little indulgence, it’s not possible for to stay in this type of accommodation. Having said that, we’ve had no problems sleeping almost exclusively in double beds for our entire tour of Japan.
We did come to love the little extras you get in Japanese hotels; the yukata (a Japanese cotton dressing gown) in all sorts of different designs. The lovely toilets with seat warmers, bottom washers, the capsule bathrooms that are prefabricated and squeeze everything into a perfectly formed tiny space. The room and bathroom slippers (none of which fit our western sized feet) and the “Febreeze” type fabric freshener.
Japan’s Little Annoyances
We have both loved Japan and would come back in a jiffy (well not in a Jiffy bag, that would simply be even more uncomfortable than spending the night in a Japanese semi-double bed), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things that are a tad annoying.
Wifi – There is virtually no free wifi anywhere outside the main airports unless you are already signed up with one of the mobile companies who have services everywhere. However, unless you are a resident (or get your hands on an Alien Registration Certificate) you cannot purchase a sim card in Japan. Well you can ‘rent’ a phone from some of the suppliers, but the rates are extortionate.
Not good and a little too insular for my liking. That said all the hotels had great LAN internet connections. But again, not so good if you travel with only a tablet or a mobile phone.
Check-in times in hotels – Most don’t allow you to check in till three or even four pm and checkout is always strictly 10am. This seems a little harsh to me and it was rare if we turned up early we were allowed a room, especially annoying if you have been travelling and just want a quick shower to freshen up.
All do luggage storage so its not such a major hassle.
Getting cash from ATM’s in Japan - those that will dispense cash to non Japanese Bank cards are like hens teeth. You can only do this at Post Offices, which only have the ATM’s inside the branches, therefore only accessible when the branch is open! The Seven Eleven store ATM’s allow foreign cards you to get cash, but not all stores have an ATM.
None of these are major gripes, but I would expect better from a well developed and technical savvy nation like this.
The Japanese, it appears, can sleep anywhere but are particularly fond of a little snooze on the train. Countless times we saw whole rows of people asleep on public transport. I am sure I saw one guy having forty winks while standing up holding on to the handrail – brilliant. They are also not averse to catching a bit of shut eye after their lunch or a coffee. It is not uncommon to see someone’s head down on the table merrily snoring away. Interesting cultural difference.
We arrived in Tokyo, with just a day left on our wonderful Japan Rail passes. We had extracted every bit of value from them, and did toy with the idea of maxing them out and trying to get up to see Sappro, before they expired. While it would have logistically been possible, it would have meant us getting off the train, having a quick look round and hot tailing it back to Tokyo. We decided to call it a day and spend our last extra days in Tokyo.
We enjoyed our time in Tokyo. However, after flashpacking around other places in Japan before arriving here, perhaps we had come to accept the magic of Japan already. Therefore, Tokyo did not provide many additional highlights for us. Osaka still holds top spot for us in terms of Japanese cities, and we believe makes a good value place to stay and explore some great destinations.
We chatted about why we both felt this way. We came up with the following.
Tokyo is enormous and makes Osaka look like a provincial town in comparison. While the Tokyo transport links are fantastic, it still takes you a long time to get around between the main areas, which are sporadic. If we had been here on a short holiday, rather than on our flashpacking tour, we would have been able to sample more of its fantastic restaurants and shopping delights and perhaps given it a higher city rating. However, we did enjoy wandering and people watching.
Our favourite bits of Tokyo
Ueno Park and another Sakura Party, madness under the blossoms with some great food stalls to work your way around.
Watching the crazy kids at Harajuku. They all line up and try and outdo themselves in their dressing up and make up application. This is truly a uniquely Japanese pastime.
Shibuya crossing has been featured in many a feature film, the iconic crossing could not be missed, so we had a coffee in Starbucks overlooking the five way crossing and watched the swarms.
Getting lost in Shinjuku station and exploring the camera shops. Shinjuku handles millions of passengers a day and the many exits, passages, subways and platforms are bewildering. Don’t start your Tokyo exploration here it will blow your mind.
As will the array of toys to play with in the camera shops here – all the latest models available (although be warned many of our preferred cameras were not available with English language menus).
Going googey at the gadgets in Akihabara and being amazed at the otaku (nerds to us) obsessing with anime, manga and video games. We added to our array of travel gadgets by purchasing a new camera.
We’d read that you can’t really negotiate much on the list price of new gadgets in the shops, but John put his bartering skills to good use and got a good discount (although the sales assistant was a little embarrassed for us during the negotiations) and we also got the purchase tax free – I’ve checked since on the internet and this was an excellently priced purchase.
Tokyo at night with all its neon and bright lights.
The sheer masses of people will never cease to amaze and amuse at the same time.
Before visiting Japan we hadn’t considered it a ‘must do’ destination. Fate made us visit Japan, by offering us a bargain bucket flight price from the Philippines.
However, our opinions have definitely changed and we feel privileged to have been able to visit this must see travel destination.
Speaking to some people who visit Asia, they don’t even explore the possibilities of a visit to Japan, based on cost. I believe that people are missing out on the trip of a lifetime. Yes, Japan is more expensive than developing countries in Asia, but it isn’t as expensive as it was say 15 years ago, and prices haven’t risen. The country has been riding a recession for at least a decade.
The food is great and can be eaten cheaply (cheaper than Europe and US). Yes, accommodation is a bit pricey, but hey, there are bargains to be had. I think you could learn and see a lot in just a two week visit to Japan. If I was really on a tight budget and/or pushed for time, I would skip Tokyo, there is so much more to Japan.
More Photographs of Tokyo