For the longest time Japan was as geographically close as it was completely unexplored a territory to me. It remained so up until a spontaneous winter trip with friends wherein my love affair with the land of the rising sun truly blossomed, being deepened only by repeated visits and occasional trips down memory lane. Since then, Japan has become my go-to country for amazing travel experiences. Not entirely due to my obsession with salmon sashimi and Terrace House; nevertheless, both are big factors.
I have been asked by many friends and acquaintances time and again two entirely different questions about Japan: 1) how exactly I plan my trips and 2) why exactly should they bother. Seriously, at this point I might be one of their biggest (unpaid and unsolicited) travel ambassadors.
Why Japan Travel Is Worth It
Japan, for the most part, developed inside its own amazing bubble. And then one day the whole world was floored at how fast and independently the country grew in many different aspects. Culturally, Japan is one of the world’s richest, marrying influences from the past with innovations from the future. I don’t think many countries on this planet can boast such a feat: in Japan it is normal to ride a high speed bullet train while looking out the window at stunning views of ricepaddies.
Things To Consider When Planning Your Trip
1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary
For holders of Philippine passports like me, there is a fairly easy process to obtain a tourist visa to Japan. The first time I applied in 2015 I was granted a single-entry visa. But after my first trip, I was automatically given a multiple-entry visa with a five-year validity when I applied again. Determine first the type of visa you’d like to acquire and refer to the Japanese Embassy’s webpage for instructions. Both times I applied via Reli Tours and Travel Company.
Japan is by no means a cheap country for travel but that isn’t to say that budget travel is impossible. Here is a general sample breakdown of two of my most recent trips to Japan (some prices are rough and rounded-up approximations for good measure):
For less than 1000 USD each time, I got to venture out of the capital city of Tokyo and into even less touristic areas like Gifu and Takayama. I stayed in centrally-located Airbnbs with friends and families and availed of a JR Pass (a 7-day rail pass with access to JR trains) and a PASMO card (a smart card used in Tokyo) to save a few hundred dollars on public transportation. Most of my day-to-day expenses were allotted for food and drink, entrance fees to temples and theme parks, and shopping (mostly for onamori or amulets from temples visited, clothes from Uniqlo, random finds in Daiso, and make-up from Matsumoto Kiyoshi, a famed drugstore chain in Japan).
2. Language, Culture, Etiquette
In Japan, Nihongo is the language spoken while kanji and the two syllbabic scripts, hiragana and katagana, are used in their writing system. Fear not, a lot of signs in Japan also contain English translations. I personally have never had a problem communicating while traveling around the country.
As if Japan was not unique enough, one should also be wary of important dining customs such as slurping your soup and noodles loudly (to show that you are enjoying your meal) and not tipping (because doing so is considered rude). Likewise, if you haven’t already mastered the art of using chopsticks, better pick some up and learn on the way because you won’t see any other utensils elsewhere.
Keep in mind that Japan is more than just animé and cat cafés. It goes beyond sword-wielding samurai and tea-serving geisha. The Japanese are some of the most polite and most disciplined people I have ever encountered. I particularly love how they fall diligently in line when boarding trains and subways. As a result, I always feel so safe and so anonymous when I’m in Japan. And for someone as introverted as me, that is the equivalent of utopia.
3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, and What to Do
For first-time visitors, the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka should not be missed. Daytrips are also possible depending on the length of stay. I have been to Japan in winter (small crowds but can get really cold) and fall (crowds getting smaller but humidity only starting to disappear) but they say spring is the most beautiful time to go (cherry blossom season).
Tokyo: The Shibuya crossing, Hachiko’s statue, the Meiji shrine, Harajuku district, and Shinjuku garden are some of the highlights of this crazy city. I absolutely love eating chirashi bowls for breakfast in the Tsukiji Fish Market and ramen bowls for lunch in Tokyo Station. I also have very fond memories of visiting arcades scattered around the city; entering one feels as if you’re in a completely different world. For animé geeks and movie buffs like me, a trip to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo is a must.
Kyoto: Go temple hopping. My favourites in this city are definitely the Fushimi-Inari temple with unending rows of orange torii (as seen in Memoirs of a Geisha) and the Kiyomizu-dera love temple (where there are two love stones you have to cross with eyes closed in order to fulfill your heart’s greatest desire). The Arashiyama bamboo forest is also a beauty. For better photos, be sure to go to the hidden corners that lazy tourists don’t even reach. Don’t forget to watch a traditional Japanese performance in Gion Corner. This was truly an unforgettable experience, given how stealthy authentic geishas are in Japan – this is probably the closest to a geisha sighting a tourist on a budget can get!
Osaka: Dubbed as the gastronomic capital of the world, Osaka does not disappoint when it comes to the wide selection of delicious food across the city. For a more crowded, touristic experience, be sure to check out the street food in Dotonbori. Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) and takoyaki (octopus balls) are typical of Osaka and they are everywhere you look. For a more relaxed, local experience, go to the Kuromon Ichiba market where you can buy fresh produce and sometimes discounted sushi and tempura. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, visit the Universal Studios. I actually am deathly afraid of roller coasters so I only went to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and to have some hot and cold Butterbeer. A daytrip to Nara to feed the deer is also highly recommended!
4. Tips & Tricks
Get a JR Pass if you’re planning to cover long distances. The JR pass is a steal if you intend to go from one city to another, in style (read: via the Shinkansen bullet trains) while saving a ton of money. It is an experience in itself. Plus, you can use the JR pass on local JR trains in most cities, cutting down expenses on public transportation and making travel more convenient (you just show the pass at the entrance and you’re good to go). Note that the JR Pass can only be bought outside of Japan and is only sold to holders of foreign passports.
Always bring cash with you. Japan is, in all its modernity, still a cash-based society so especially when making small purchases like those yummy tuna rolls in Family Mart, local currency will come in handy. Also, I am a big fan of how the Japanese give you back your change. It is so artful, I often wonder if they have training for that.
The toilet is your friend. I hate to end this post on this note, but really, Japanese toilets are amazing. I will never get tired of figuring them all out and channeling my inner Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory (read: what does this button do???). Seriously, the Japanese toilet is yet another reflection of the country’s tradition of appreciating cleanliness and beauty mixed with unprecedented technological innovation.