Our top 10 tips for travel in Japan

Between them, our staff have well over a century’s experience living and working in Japan, and have travelled every inch of this wonderful country – from the snowswept plains of northern Hokkaido to remote Yonaguni Island in the far southwest.

As you might expect, our band of intrepid explorers have picked up all kinds of invaluable hints, tips and advice along the way. From getting hopelessly lost in the backstreets of Tokyo to making all kinds of cultural faux pas – we’ve made all the mistakes there are to make in Japan and lived to tell the tale. It’d be a shame not to pass on our insider knowledge so that you don’t have to do the same!

team[2]

After surveying all 64 current members of the InsideJapan staff and plumbing the depths of their Japan knowledge, I came up with this list of top tips and recommendations to help you get the most out of your Japan holiday:

  1. Keep an open mind and an open schedule

When speaking to the InsideJapan team, this piece of advice came up more than any other tip.

Whilst it’s definitely useful to do your research and have an itinerary planned before you travel (see point eight), don’t get so caught up in your plans that you don’t have a chance to enjoy the unexpected things that make travelling in Japan so exciting. Japan is a country where even the most mundane tasks (going to the loo, getting a drink from a vending machine) can be exciting to the uninitiated – and everyone on our team will agree that the most fascinating and memorable moments from their time in Japan could never have been planned.

With this in mind, don’t be afraid of having ‘gaps’ or ‘empty spaces’ in your holiday plans. Take it slowly and throw yourself into every new situation and you’ll find that this is when you have the chance encounters and experiences that you’ll always remember.

Tokyo---Japan-Unmasked-group-at-Sensoji-with-TL-Alain_CMYK[1]

  1. Forget about the ‘language barrier’ 

Learn a few words in Japanese. Now, we’re not suggesting that you become an expert in the language – in fact, you don’t even need to learn a complete sentence. Simply learning the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ will really go a long way. The Japanese are generally so impressed and pleased that you have made any effort at all to master their language that you don’t need any more!

On a similar note, don’t be put off travelling to Japan because of the perceived ‘language barrier’. Though you may well find that not that many Japanese people can speak English – that doesn’t mean that people won’t go a thousand miles out of their way to help you, even if it is through gestures and pointing.

Good advice when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak much English is to speak in short sentences (or even one-word sentences). “Ginza”, for example, is much more likely to get you to where you want to be than “excuse me kind sir, but could I trouble you to direct me to Ginza subway station, if you’d be so very kind?” – not that you’d say that, but you know what I mean.

Oh – and talk to people, even if they don’t speak good English. Don’t be shy. Anyone on the InsideJapan team will tell you that you don’t need a common language to make a friend!

SONY DSC

  1. Don’t worry about ‘doing the wrong thing’

Japan has become famous as a place of obscure cultural rules and impenetrable social codes – so much so that some travellers are put off visiting for fear that they will accidentally make a boob of themselves by trampling insensitively over the cherished customs of their hosts.

It’s true that Japan’s etiquette can be somewhat confusing – and you are almost inevitably going to ‘do the wrong thing’ at some point – but the key thing to remember is this: no-one cares. Nobody is going to be offended if you forget to take off your shoes in the right place, or if you’re not aware of the intricacies of chopstick etiquette. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to know everything (and actually, some Japanese people will be surprised that you know anything). As long as you’re not being deliberately culturally insensitive, you’ll be fine.

As a rule, the Japanese take great pleasure in teaching others about their culture, so in making a faux pas you could even be making a new friend.

 

  1. Have an onsen experience 

We asked all our staff what they loved most about living in Japan, and we got some interesting answers. Possibly the most popular response (after the delicious cuisine, which took the top spot without a fight) was onsen culture.

Onsen are Japanese hot spring baths, and thanks to the high level of volcanic activity in Japan they can be found up and down the country. From steamy baths in the snow in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps to rustic onsen villages deep in the forest; from onsen on the beach to time-honoured bathhouses like Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen – hot spring bathing is an integral (and extremely enjoyable) aspect of Japanese culture that should not be missed.

What’s not to love about a hot bath? Well, there is one catch: you have to do it in your birthday suit. In front of complete strangers. This is the part that puts most people off – and quite understandably. But if there’s anything InsideJapan staff could say to prospective onsen-goers it’s this: just do it! It’s only strange to start with – before long you’ll have forgotten your reservations and will wonder why you ever hesitated.

DSC00542

  1. Stay at a ryokan inn

Like bathing in an onsen, staying at a traditional ryokan inn is one of those intrinsically Japanese experiences that no visitor to the country should miss out on. Japan is famous for its hospitality, and at a ryokan you really experience this at its best.

Sleep on comfortable futon laid out by a kimono-wearing attendant on a tatami mat floor, look out over exquisite Japanese gardens, tiptoe through shoji sliding paper doors on geta sandals, wrap yourself in a traditional yukata bathrobe to visit the in-house onsen baths, and sample delicious regional food at breakfast and dinner.

You simply haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan – trust us. You won’t regret it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  1. Get off the beaten track

It’s one of those hackneyed travel phrases that you’ll find lurking in every Lonely Planet guide and travel blog, used to describe every broken-down shack and one-horse town across the globe. And yet – loath as we are to peddle clichés – it is only by ‘getting off the beaten track’ that you can really get a rounded impression of Japan.

The big cities and famous sights are ‘on the beaten track’ for a reason. They’re the iconic views, the celebrated historical monuments and the locations that you’ve always dreamed of visiting. But it is by heading away from these destinations – into the countryside, the mountains, and the remote islands – that you’ll discover a side of Japan you never expected.

P3210067
Here’s a nice little video from one of our customers who spent a couple of weeks in Japan seeing some incredible places and meeting wonderful people in some of the more famous places and the lesser known places….a good taste of Japan.

  1. Visit an izakaya

One of the pieces of advice that cropped up time and time again in conversation with the InsideJapan team was to visit an izakaya. It’s hard to explain just what an izakaya is if you’ve never been to one, but they are most often described as the Japanese version of a British pub – a description that doesn’t quite do them justice.

Izakaya are where the Japanese go to eat, drink and be merry. They range from the cheap and cheerful (every dish 240 yen/£1.30) to the super-duper top-end cuisine, but what they all have in common is that they serve a wide range of small, tapas-style dishes to be shared amongst your group, and plenty of beer and sake.

It can be daunting to walk into an izakaya straight off the street – especially if it’s a tiny local establishment with no English menu or English-speaking staff – but if you’re brave enough, this is the best way to get chatting to the locals and try some delicious regional foods.

But don’t worry – if you’re too chicken to go it alone, InsideJapan can arrange an izakaya experience where one of our tour leaders can show you the ropes.

IMG_2171

  1. Do your research 

In our experience, the more you know about Japan the more it will intrigue you. Before you travel, have a look into the history of the areas you’re planning to visit and find out a bit about the culture – both contemporary and traditional. Doing things like watching a sumo match, meeting a geisha, visiting a Zen temple or exploring a shogun’s mausoleum will be that much more fascinating if you know a little about the background.

Sumo_TT4 (2)

  1. Hire a bike. Or a car. Or a motorbike.

We have nothing but excellent things to say about the clean, efficient, convenient and downright wonderful public transport system in Japan. There’s nothing quite like taking a ride on the bullet train, or navigating by the Tokyo subway.

But if you want to see a bit more and really get out of the main tourist traps, sometimes it’s best to go under your own steam. Hiring a bicycle will really allow you to explore bits of Japanese cities and countryside that you’d never have discovered otherwise, whilst renting a car or a motorbike will allow you to be even more adventurous and really get out into the unknown.

SONY DSC

10.  Bring plenty of cash (but not because Japan is expensive!)

Surprising as it may seem for a country that is world-famous for being technologically advanced, Japan is still very much a cash-based society and many places will still not accept plastic. It can even be difficult to withdraw cash from an ATM at the weekend or after 5pm – so instead of wasting time exchanging travellers’ cheques or hunting for a cash machine that accepts foreign cards, be sure to bring plenty of yen! Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so there’s no need to fret about having pockets bulging with cash either.

And while we’re on the subject of money, don’t be put off visiting Japan because of its reputation for being expensive. It’s not the cheapest country in the world, but Japan is certainly not as a dear as most people think. Food, for example, is very cheap and extremely good quality – you can easily have an excellent meal for no more than 1,000 yen (about £5.50). Subway travel is also reasonable (the most you’ll pay for any journey on the Tokyo underground is a couple of quid), and capsule hotels offer a night’s sleep for less than 4,000 yen (about £20). Whatever anyone else tells you, it is possible to do Japan on a shoestring.

Al Sabah

These are only our top ten tips – between them the InsideJapan staff came up with many more – enough to flesh out a follow-up post, in fact! Watch this space…

What to do in Japan if…. You’re a Kid!

Traveling to Japan can take on a whole different perspective if you’re a kid. Most travelers from English-speaking countries are intrigued by the country’s different language, dress, architecture and customs, even in modern Japan. If you’re headed with your family to Nippon for a vacation or holiday after school gets out, here are some things that will help your kids learn about Japanese culture while having fun at the same time:  kids in japan

1. Ride a bullet train. Japan’s high-speed trains travel at speeds of up to 320 km/h (200 mph), pretty cool if you’re a kid. These trains are also an efficient way to tour the country.

2. Visit an electronics store. Some of the electronics stores in Tokyo are as big as a New York City or London apartment block. Plus, there stores have items that aren’t yet for sale overseas. They are a teenager’s paradise.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH3. Gaze at the neon lights. The neon billboards in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood are colorful, fanciful and intriguing, for kids of any age.

4. Master the art of origami. Japan’s paper art is a fascinating and fun way to learn about Japanese culture.

5. Sleep in a traditional Japanese accommodation. Sleeping on the floor, stand-up bath tubs, and paper walls: what’s not to love?

6. Sample ramen noodles. Ramen noodles, one of Japan’s favorite inexpensive foods, are available on practically every street corner. Slurp these delicious noodles with your kids. They’ll never want to have the grocery store variety again.

7. Visit a temple. The many Buddhist and Shinto temples, large and small, that dot the Japanese landscape combine art, religion and culture.

Going on holiday to Japan has plenty of exciting activities for the whole family!  When you look at the country for a child’s point of view, you might just see Japan in a whole new light.

Five reasons to visit the north of Japan

The beauty of Tohoku

Just fifteen minutes ago, before sitting down to write this, I was plunging into an outdoor hot-spring on the roof of my ryokan (Japanese Inn) watching the sun set over Sado Island, a lesser known destination off Japan’s north-west coast. With steam pouring into the cool air around me, I watched as the clouds and verdant hillside of Mount Kinpoku turned orange and then pink and purple as the sun dipped ever lower on the horizon, before finally disappearing into the distant Japan Sea. I was thoroughly lost in the moment, and I would have happily stayed that way had I not remembered that I was sharing this ‘magical moment’ with the four naked Japanese men who were also in the hot-spring. Strangely, and not necessarily for the better, I have grown all too accustomed to jumping into baths with naked strangers. Indeed, every night on my two week trip around Tohoku (northern Japan excluding Hokkaido) my companion and I have done as the locals do and finished off a long day of sightseeing with a dip in the onsen (hot-springs).

Yet this experience, as undeniably special as it was, has been only one among many. Which got me to thinking about what I like best about Tohoku.

A sample of what our nightly fare consisted of

Food! Food, food, food…. and food. At times it felt like we simply sightseeing in order to fill time until the next meal. Sure enough, delicious food can be found all over Japan but there is a plethora of local specialities in the north that make it different and exotic, even to a Japanese ‘foodie’ like myself. Staying in temples, hotels, and ryokans, every night has been a feast as artfully presented and as delicious as the one before. Fresh sashimi, whole crabs staring me in the face, tender slabs of marbled wagyu beef, oysters, nabe stews, noodles, tofu, black skinned pork, fried chicken, sushi… just to name a few.

A few shots from our time in the Ishinomaki area, still recovering and rebuilding from last year’s tsunami

A visit to one of the tsunami stricken areas is a harrowing experience but, for me, it was also one which inspired hope, reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of communities and their ability to come together in the face of disaster, and reminded me of just how many selfless organisations and individuals are working to rebuild the cities, houses, and neighbourhoods that were completely and utterly destroyed 19 months ago. The very short time that I spent volunteering in Ishinomaki is an experience that money simply can’t buy, and one that I would recommend to anyone with the desire to make a difference.

The nature of Nikko

Just a few short hours north of Tokyo is one of my favourite places to visit in all of Japan. Aside from the architectural masterpieces for which the area has become famous for, Nikko has great hiking, postcard perfect waterfalls, colourful foliage in autumn, wild monkeys and serrows, hot-springs, and cool summers. By all accounts, this is a “must-see” destination. Of course, as with most “must-see” spots, there is rarely a quiet day when you can get the best sights to yourself, which is all the more reason to make sure you spend the night at a traditional inn near the temples and go for a wander at night once all the crowds gone home to Tokyo.

Sado Island’s rugged coast

I ride on the comfortable Tokkaido shinkansen (the bullet train running between Tokyo and Fukuoka) weekly and spend much of that time gazing out the window watching as neat rows of exquisitely manicured green tea plantations and the many rice paddies squeezed between houses and cities whiz by. Some days even Mount Fuji makes an appearance. Yet every time I make this journey I am simply amazed at how developed this densely populated corridor of Japan is.

In northern Honshu (Japan’s main island) life moves at a slower pace, nature still reigns supreme, and small towns outnumber big cities. For anyone who has only been west of Tokyo, a trip up north will reveal a different side of Japan; and if you’ve never been to Japan at all, this might just be the Japan you’ve always imagined.

The natural and historic beauty of Haguro San is truly exquisite

The last on my list is most certainly not least; Haguro San is the smallest of three sacred peaks in Yamagata prefecture but it is far more than just another hill.

From what felt like a very ordinary road running through the middle of a small town, I stepped off the bus and walked no more than 20 metres through an old Buddhist gate and found myself in another world altogether. A bit like Narnia but without the talking animals. 2446 stone steps cut through giant cedars, lead me over an arched red wooden bridge, past a 1000 year old cedar tree, around a 600 year old ornate wooden five-storied pagoda, into a teahouse for a well deserved rest, and finally on to my accommodation, a Buddhist temple turned Japanese inn at the peak’s summit.

The quiet air and reverent atmosphere at the top of this pilgrimage destination left me forgetting completely about the cares and worries of my daily life in Tokyo. Instead of opening up my computer or flipping on the TV once the sun went down, I changed into my yukata (a light cotton kimono), had a boil in the temple’s bath and then sat down to a delicious almost-vegetarian feast and a large ice cold beer. This was surely the closest I was going to come to having a religious experience.

Make Holidays Greener – Part 1

July is ‘Make Holidays Greener‘ month, a campaign across the UK travel industry organised by the Bristol based charity, the Travel Foundation.

At InsideJapan Tours we like to think our holidays are pretty sustainable all year round. Here are some reasons why:

1. Our Small Group Tours have a minimum group size of 14. Better group dynamics, no ‘tour bus bubble’, instead you get close to the places and people you are visiting.

2. We encourage clients to visit rural areas, where tourist money helps to revitalise depopulated communities.

3. Think local: A stay in a family-run inn is a highlight of any Japan trip!

4. And don’t just think local; regional, seasonal Japanese food is amazing.

5. All of our trips make use Japan’s fantastic public transport.

6. We only include car hire for very off-the-beaten track locations, and then it’s a Toyota Prius.

7. All the hotels and ryokan we use complete our health & safety survey every other year. The survey includes Sustainable Tourism questions to encourage hotels and ryokans to conserve energy and resources, and reduce waste.

8. We encourage interaction with local people. On Self-Guided trips we recommend spending a day or two with a local private guide to give you the real lowdown on Japanese culture & history.

9. Japan’s traditional culture is unique and deserves to be preserved for future generations. We can include sumo tickets, ikebana lessons, tea ceremony and much more in any Japan holiday.

10. Japan has fantastic wildlife and we support the sanctuaries and charities that protect it like the Shinshu Asiatic Black Bear Conservation Group. We avoid bear parks or zoos in Japan where we feel wild animals are kept in cruel conditions.

11. Why not visit an eco-lodge or try your hand at local farming techniques on a rural farm stay?

Please click here to read more about our Sustainable Tourism policy at InsideJapan Tours.

A visit to the Tanabe Ryokan in Hida-Takayama

Japan has hundreds of beautiful sights, famous landmarks, and unforgettable scenery but I have always argued that it is the little things that truly make this country such a special place to visit; the everyday things that surround you from morning to night. Whether it be the random (and sometimes unidentifiable) objects in the convenience store, the train attendant who bows to you as he leaves the carriage, or the old man in the bar who buys you a drink in an unspoken agreement that you will help him practice his English…  Everywhere I’ve been in Japan there is something that strikes me as ever-so-well-thought-out, wonderfully pleasant, and thoroughly Japanese. But nowhere is this more true than when visiting a Japanese Inn, or ryokan. The fusion of modern comfort and traditional beauty sweep through every detail of every room. Granted, there are beat down ryokans that have hardly changed in the last 50 years and there are frighteningly expensive ryokans that seem luxurious to the point of overkill, but they all have their strong points. And usually, it is the people who run these traditional inns that make the stay so special, certainly nothing could be more true about the Tanabe Ryokan in Takayama.

My room for the night. The floor is tatami, a woven straw mat, and in the alcove hangs a bit of traditional calligraphy and flower arrangement. But for those not interested in the traditional arts, a television sits just outside of the frame of this picture.

 

Rooms in ryokans are traditionally titled rather than numbered. The titles are almost always nature related; plants, trees, names of famous mountains or rivers, et cetera. The Tanabe has been kind enough to provide a transliteration as well as a number to each of their rooms for their visitors who haven't had time to master written Japanese.

 

Almost as famous as the geisha and Mt. Fuji, Japanese toilets are truly a sight to behold. Water sprays in all directions and there are often plenty of other features as well. Like heated seats. You'll notice the slippers that are provided just for when using the toilet!

 

Always the space-saving country. The bedding is kept in the closet during the day and laid out for you as you have dinner at night. This saves floor space and preserves the simple but elegant Japanese aesthetic.

 

In the closet awaits a light cotton Japanese robe, a yukata, which is traditionally worn to the bath and also to dinner. On top of it rest a towel and some toiletries, also for your visit to the bath.

 

The bathing facilities at most ryokans are lovely affairs. A place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. Although bathing etiquette may at first seem a bit daunting. The most important bit is to remember to thoroughly wash before getting in to bath itself. In the same room are showers (the Japanese traditionally show sitting down) and soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Then, after rinsing all the suds off, you can soak your bones in the rejuvenating waters.

 

A hanging curtain, noren, hangs outside each of the bath rooms. Once again, the Tanabe ryokan has taken pity on those who don't read Japanese and provided an English marking as well. Although, a nice general rule is "blue for boys, red for girls". Admittedly, it may take some time to get used to the idea of bathing in the same room as other men (or women) but its a custom that once enjoyed is hard to resist. Of course, if you're really not comfortable, there is a private shower and bath in each of the rooms.

 

Rest assured, I made sure that no one was around before barging in to the ladies' baths. At the Tanabe, as in many ryokans, the proprietors switch the men and women's baths daily so that everyone gets to experience the different baths. This one is made from cedar and gives off a gorgeous scent from the moment you enter the room.

 

Instead of the same old lobby, the Tanabe has a sitting room that looks out on a beautiful miniature Japanese garden. This is also where the free coffee and internet are to be found, and often where I spend my afternoons when I stay here. (with the company of a good book of course)

 

I'm sure that my mobile photos don't do the Tanabe ryokan justice but I hope that they will inspire you to visit for yourself. Lastly, I must plead ever-so-guilty to have not taken any photos of the exquisite dinners, a crime by my own admission; but also one more reason to make the journey and see for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,636 other followers

%d bloggers like this: