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How do I even begin to describe what it’s like to travel in Japan?
It is an experience. It surrounds you. Every moment of every day is filled with new discoveries and cultural difference and utter delights. I can’t describe it beyond that, but everyone who has been knows exactly what I’m talking about.
If there were a word to describe Japan as a whole, it would be reverent. This is a nation where every action displays a culture of deference, respect and obedience. It encompasses daily life.
Reverence of food. The food here is prepared and delivered with such deep respect and meticulous care, even in fast food joints. Anything else would be anti-Japanese. I didn’t have a single bad meal in Japan.
Reverence of manners. Japan has a longstanding reputation of politeness. One place where this was most evident was on trains. Whenever a conductor entered a car, he would enter and exit the car with an energetic yet crisp bow before attending to passengers.
Reverence of nature. Nature receives the utmost respect here, and you’ll often find that everything from architecture to food plays into an overall respect of the natural environment of Japan.
Reverence of rules. Japan is a rules-based culture. There are lots of written and unwritten rules – the Japanese wouldn’t dream of throwing recyclables in the trash, or acting rude to a stranger, or dressing like a slob. The list of taboos here is extensive.
Yes, most than anything else, it’s reverence that defines Japan. But beyond that, here are a few of the idiosyncrasies I noticed in the Land of the Rising Sun:
English is used for style, not function.
See English lettering somewhere? Chances are it’s not used for the purpose of communicating with non-Japanese speakers. Again and again, I noticed that English was used for little more than decoration.
On my first night in Tokyo, I was looking for a restaurant in a mall and I was delighted to find a pamphlet emblazoned with Mall Directory in ornate script. I opened it up…and it was all in Japanese. The English was just used for stylistic purposes.
Sex is overt — except when it’s not.
If there’s any neighborhood you must visit in Tokyo, make it Akihabara. I planned to check out the electronics stores, seeing the newest innovations years before they hit the western market.
Instead, I found myself in the center for otaku (super-geek) culture. Electronics stores held court next to porn shops, crammed with sex toys and hentai (anime porn) comic books. Arcades were filled with nipple-baring figurines in sexual poses as prizes. Throughout the neighborhood, girls dressed as sexy maids advertised their cafes.
Now — the strange thing is that actual sex is kept under lock and key. While seeing men reading porn on the subway is a common occurrence, you wouldn’t see a couple making out and borderline dry humping in Tokyo. You barely saw people even holding hands. As I mentioned in my geisha post, there are clear boundaries between actual, consensual, conventional, relationship-based sex and just about everything else.
It’s not as expensive as you think.
Japan has long held a reputation as being one of the most expensive countries in the world to visit, with Tokyo holding the crown as one of the world’s most expensive cities.
After my visit, I think that reputation is a bit undeserved. Two things in Japan are quite expensive: lodging and long-distance transportation. But beyond that, prices aren’t that bad. I’d compare them to prices in London, Paris or New York.
Food, in particular, can be done on the cheap. Almost all of our meals cost less than 1000 yen ($10). My splurge meals actually weren’t that painful – I had a seafood feast in Kyoto for 3500 yen each ($35), a Kobe beef lunch in Kobe for 2950 yen each ($29.50), and a selection of sushi at a nice sushi bar in the pricey Tokyo neighborhood of Ginza – plus sake – for about 2100 yen ($21).
Subway rides in Tokyo cost 100-200 yen each ($1-2). Vending machine beverages cost 80-200 yen ($0.80-2). I even bought a Kindle Paperwhite from a discount camera shop in Shibuya for 8200 yen ($82) when it currently retails on Amazon for $139!
I found Japan to be much cheaper overall than Australia or Switzerland, countries where everything is expensive.
Food is theater.
One night in Kyoto, my new friends Michael from the Deep Kyoto blog and his girlfriend Miu took me out for a seafood feast at a fun, wild and cheap seafood restaurant called Asahi Suisan. Halfway through our meal, a badass fishmonger (and the most muscular Japanese guy I’ve ever seen) brought out an enormous bluefin tuna and butchered it with gusto to cheers throughout the restaurant and squeals from a table of nearby girls.
And while he did it, video played in the background of the same fishmonger on a reality show in Japan, competing for his region in the field of tuna butchering!
It was a fabulous night of entertainment and it was another side of seeing how reverent the Japanese are toward the preparation of food.
Everything is marvelously efficient.
One of the greatest performances was when my nozomi train to Kyoto pulled in. A fleet of women dressed in salmon uniforms, down to matching sneakers (!), entered the car and performed identical movements, taking out the trash bags and turning the seats around to face the other way, preparing them for the next influx of passengers.
In Japan, I would constantly think to myself, Oh. That makes sense. In the West, when presented with a more efficient solution, people would give reasons why not to implement it — that doing so would cost too much time or money that could be spent elsewhere. In Japan, they just do it, no questions asked.
The best-dressed women in the world live in Tokyo.
Sure, Italian and Parisian women dress beautifully, and London and New York women have a lot of style, but it’s nothing like the women in Tokyo. From perfectly tailored short dresses to their understated but highly functional designer flats, I gawked at the fashion in Tokyo.
Where to Stay in Tokyo: Best Areas and Accommodation
Kimonos are still very much worn.
I had the idea that Japanese women only wore kimonos for special occasions or times when traditional wear was best. Well, that’s not the case — I saw plenty of kimono-clad women (and men wearing the more plain yakuta) throughout Tokyo and Kyoto!
In Kyoto, some temples allow women in for free if they’re wearing a kimono. That will actually save you a fair amount of cash, as most Kyoto temples charge around 400-600 yen ($4-6) entry. But in other cases, they’re simply what is worn for formalwear. I would love to get a formal kimono of my own someday.
Japan is HOT!
I thought August would be the perfect time to travel through Japan, with nice summer sunshine – no way, Jose! It gets unbearably hot with very high humidity. People in Kyoto actually walked around with towels around their necks to mop up their ever-dripping brows.
It’s too bad, because the heat put a damper on a lot of our sightseeing in Kyoto in particular, when I was visiting lots of outdoor temples.
While I was in Tokyo, the mercury actually hit 42 C (106 F), breaking records. People told me again and again that I was traveling at the worst time possible. My advice to you? Visit Japan in the spring or fall if you can.
Japanese toilets really are that amazing.
Believe it or not, those fancy Japanese toilets with all the push buttons aren’t only found in luxury establishments. You’ll even find fancy Japanese toilets at cheap ramen joints and Starbucks. Once you figure out which button performs the “rear cleansing”, you’ll never go back.
Incidentally, Japanese women take longer in the bathroom than anyone I’ve ever met.
These facts may or may not be related.
You know all about Hello Kitty — but there’s so much cutesiness throughout Japan! Mascots for everything from companies to products often involve little furry cartoon characters holding hands and playing together. Cute little tunes, the kind you’d expect on a children’s show, play throughout Japan as well.
One might start thinking about the psychological implications of that – the Japanese work so hard that they enjoy their childhood wherever they can — but I just found it fun to bop along with the little animals.
Everyone is incredibly helpful.
Do you look lost? You won’t be for long. Japanese people are exceedingly helpful and even if they don’t speak English, they will drop everything to help you find your way.
I first noticed the exceptional level of helpfulness when I entered an electronics store. I asked about Kindles and the man replied that they didn’t have any, but another store might, and he’d be happy to give them a call and check.
This wasn’t another branch of their stores – this was a competitor. And he offered to call them for me. In the US, the most I would get from a salesperson would be, “You could try Best Buy.”
Japanese people love to photobomb.
Do they EVER love to photobomb!
But what is the single most shocking aspect of all?
You turn into a Japanese tourist.
Ah, Japanese tourists. The older ladies are decked out in visors and Keds, the teenagers with cameras worth thousands of dollars, the groups being led around by an umbrella. I squeezed through huge Japanese crowds on my way to class in Florence each morning, as they took up entire piazzas on their own.
And the Japanese tourists take pictures of absolutely everything.
Well. You know what I took pictures of in Japan? Toilets. Trash cans. Vending machines.
Yes, I became a Japanese tourist myself – because everything here really is so different and I couldn’t stop marveling at it all.
I get it now, Japanese tourists. I’m sorry I’ve made fun of you.
Japan is all-encompassing.
Even though Japan is on the pricier side, I consider it an extremely high value destination. Like Paris and New York, just walking down the street is a fascinating experience in Japan. Every moment, you will be stunned and amazed at the world that surrounds you.
Japan is delicious. Japan is kind. Japan is ridiculously clean. Japan is freaky and cute.
More than anywhere else I’ve been, I feel like Japan is the kind of destination that every traveler must experience at least once in his or her lifetime. I loved my two weeks there and I can’t wait to return.
Just one thing – don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you travel to Japan! I never travel without it and always use World Nomads.
112 thoughts on “What’s It Really Like to Travel Japan?”
The more and more I’m reading blogs about Japan, the more I’m realising that my perceptions of the country are completely wrong. Hopefully, when I don’t have such a restrictive student budget, I will make it there!
Japan is like my everything…haha. I was one class short of minoring in Japanese in college, and while I still don’t get manga, I could talk about Japanese contemporary architecture, art, fashion, and design all day. I visited for the first time a couple years ago and decided it’s a country that I have to return to like every few years! Not sure if my wallet can afford it, but I’ll find a way to make it work 😉 And the food! We noticed the same pride in food as you – whether we were in a fancy establishment or eating fast food. Okay, I could go on and on, so I’ll stop here…
So glad you had a fantastic time!
Japan is at the very top of my “must visit” list, and this post is making me want to visit even more. I really enjoyed your insights and observations!
Love this post! I really want to go to Japan. I just need to convince W now 🙂
Some great observations on Japan here.
Not as expensive is often the thing that blows people away. We have been telling people for many years that Japan is great value for your pound….about 20% cheapers than this time last year. Service is outstanding in Japan and there is no tipping! – Brilliant.
There really is no country like Japan.
Nice blog piece.
This is the first anything I ever read – out of books, blog posts, magazine articles – that actually made me almost interested in going to Japan. Most other write-ups usually go something akin to ‘Japan is great: gadgets, weird fish, weird fashions, everything’s expensive.’ That doesnt really excite a Europhile like me. But this was really excellent – enticing, to the point, and fun!
Man, you’re really making me want to go back to Japan like RIGHT NOW, Kate! It is interesting how English is used as decoration, but if you think about it, kanji or Chinese characters are sometimes used in a similar way in ‘the West’, perhaps not quite as much though. Also, really good news about the cost of travel in Japan. It seems like if you were couchsurfing and/or had friends to stay with, you could visit Japan much more cheaply than many places in Europe.
Though still quite expensive (to me, at least), I’m glad to see it’s not that overpriced destination I had imagined. I’m so smitten by Japanese food (whatever imitation I’ve had here :D), I really want to go. And your blog post makes me want to go even more!!
You are so damn good at summing up a place and breaking it down so that we have a solid understanding of it by the time we’ve finished reading. Thank you for showing me what Japan is really like! It has now gone from my *Don’t Care To Visit* list to my *May Visit Someday* list 🙂
Oh wow, I love this post. Ýou’ve summed up almost everything I love about Japan. Traditional values are so important yet it’s such a modern and forward-thinking country and culture. I find that mix so fascinating.
I haven’t been back to Japan for a few years and your article is going to make it hard to stay away much longer.
I lived in Japan for three years and it was my favorite among the countries I’ve called home. The main reason for that is the food, but aside from that, there’s really never a dull moment.
I’ve occasionally thought about summarizing my experiences in Japan in a single post, but always quickly abandoned the idea. It just didn’t seem possible, but you actually managed to pull it off pretty well. If I hadn’t spent so much time there already, reading this would have definitely made me want to visit Japan. Actually, it kind of makes me want to visit anyway. But not in the summer. Your advice there is spot-on: don’t visit Japan (apart from Hokkaido) in the summer!
I am going to Japan in a few months so this post was right on time. I will come back again to reference it when planning. Thanks for the great info!! 🙂
Interesting what you noticed about English as a decoration or as a matter of style. I think that it is like that in other countries too, only you don’t notice it as much when you can read the alphabet and perhaps even roughly make out what the menu or the brochure is about.
So glad you had a great time and I loved this post – particularly the photos from Akihabara and Asahi Suisan. Really gorgeous. I wish I could get mine to look like that!
You’re absolutely right about English being used for style not function. Even if they have a perfectly good word in Japanese they’ll use an English one because the image it conjures for them have is ‘cooler.’ There’s actually a children’s clothing store at my local mall called ‘Starvations.’ I always tell them that we think kanji is so beautiful we’d never dream of replacing it.
They do only wear yukata (not kimono in summer – too heavy) during special occasions, though, and you were here during Obon which is why you saw so many.
I hope you get to visit during Spring or Autumn next time!
What a great perspective of Japan. I have always veered away even though I know I plan on visiting some day. You accounts of what you saw were very informative and helpful. What a great post!
One of my lifelong dreams is to visit Japan. It hasn’t happened yet, but I still dream of making it one day there. Love the pictures and the story 😉
What an insightful piece. Great points that I’ll have to consider when I visit Japan!
What a fun post Kate! I’ve heard so many great stories from Japan now. Love how you broke it all down for us.
I would go there but I’m a bit concerned as they haven’t caught godzilla yet.
What a lovely post. Yes, Japan is so much on my list,being heavily featured on many of my favorite novels. I still have to save loads to get there. Loved reading this Kate.
This is getting me really excited for my trip to Japan in a few weeks. All my friends and family are convince Japan is more expensive than living where I am now. Yet, I managed to find an apartment with wifi for $300/month less than I pay now. I think I’ll survive.
Great breakdown of what to expect in Japan. I have yet to make it to Asia but when I finally do, Japan is first up! And I find the use of English for style purposes to be quite quirky!
I spent over two years living in Osaka and I am so glad to hear that you loved the country so much. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said here, especially about the people; I met some of the kindest, most helpful, most generous souls I’ve ever met in my life in Japan. I am so thankful for my experiences there, and I can’t wait to go back!
Japan is definitely on my bucket list. One day…
Speaking of expensive cities, we were recently in Switzerland briefly and I didn’t find it as expensive as I thought it would be with the current exchange rate for the franc. I think Iceland was worse for the money.
Fantastic! I’ve been trying to articulate this since I went in 2009, but you’ve done a much better job than I ever have. I hope you don’t mind, but the next time someone asks me why I loved Japan so much, I’m going to steal this:
Japan is delicious. Japan is kind. Japan is ridiculously clean. Japan is freaky and cute.
I love how you mention the value of the trip. That the value shouldn’t be solely based on money, but on experience too. I definitely think Japan would be one of those places that is truly fascinating, in a way Russia, Morocco or France is.
I love Japan! It is so unique and full of surprises. I agree that every traveler should consider visiting Japan at least once.
And THAT’s hwo you make someone want to visit a country NOW:-)
Logic and efficiency? Sign me up. I’ve almost never been able to say “but it would work better this way” without a quizzical and vacant expression greeting me in return.
And I just watched the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” which was amazing. It’s about the world’s most famous sushi chef in Tokyo, and now I have to go there. Pricey, though. But sort of a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
Wonderful write-up Kate! I have often heard about Japan’s prices as well, but it is refreshing to hear you say that about them. I find that once you actually get to a place, you can always find a way to local eateries that aren’t that expensive. This was true even in NYC for me.
You’re so right about the Western thing: if something makes sense, it won’t get implemented because of the cost. Things take forever here. why can’t it be quick.
Making Beverley want to quickly pack a bag and head straight to Japan: DONE! It sounds amazing Kate. So glad you enjoyed it 🙂
You’ve just totally changed my outlook on Japanese tourists in Europe with that last point. I’ve never thought about it like that, and I’m sure I’ll be exactly the same if I ever visit Japan!
Sounds like you where out there around the same time I was. I completely fell in love with the country, so much to see and do it is a great experience and one that everyone should experience.
Japan isn’t in our bucket list but we would definitely love to explore the country in the future. For that, thank you for the awesome post! It was definitely a great read!
I Would love to Visit Japan, we were there for 1 day on our way to Thailand,
Wish I would of ad more time.
Next time. Thanks for a great post.
Glad to hear that Japan is not as expensive as it’s cracked up to be. Since I was only there as a middle school student on an exchange trip, I didn’t have to worry about the cost. I was thinking I would have to save for quite some time just to afford to eat in that country!! Glad to hear it’s a little better. 🙂
So neat about people still wearing kimonos!
Thanks for such an extensive review on Japan! Lot of things that I didn’t know and now I know!
It all sounds so very amazing, Japan has always been a place that intrigued/fascinated me from what I’ve seen. I love the breakdown you did of all the little things and big things that really make Japan a great experience.
It’s so true – you really do become a Japanese tourist! Well put. I didn’t make the connection when we visited a few years ago – but it makes so much sense (we have many photos of vending machines and toilets too!)
Man, when I went on an high school exchange trip in Japan, I learnt so much about it!
Those vending machines are everywhere! And food is actually cheap in Japan, or maybe it’s just really expensive in Australia where I live haha.
I think Japan has a really conservative culture, but those who want to express themselves (sex, drugs and all the other crazy stuff) do it in their own privacy. Family reputation is a big thing after all. I mean, you call people by their family name until you really get to know them.
So different to the west, where it’s all about the individual..
I love Japan! It is so unique and full of surprises. I agree that every traveler should consider visiting Japan at least once.
Japanese people are also disciplined. It’s expected that you line up when ordering for a Subway sandwich or when using public toilets. They’re also very safety-conscious. They prepare a drum of water even when you’re only handling sparklers. Toddlers are trained what to do during an earthquake while in school.
I Like Japan.I really want to go to Japan. Traditional values are so important yet it’s such a modern and forward-thinking country and culture.thank you for the awesome post! It was definitely a great read!
Hey Kate, where did you end up staying while in Japan? Hotels, hostels, other? If you ended up staying in hotels, did you find them expensive?
I think Japan is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been. The people are super friendly! I remember one man walking with me for over an hour helping me find my hostel! In the end once we found it he said bye and that was it! I would love to do workaway somewhere in the Japanese countryside! Thanks for the great post.
Ok, now I def need to travel to Japan. Thanks for sharing!!
Reading this I now can’t wait to go to Japan later on this year.
Very cool! If I didn’t want to go to Japan before (which I did) I definitely do now!
Japan is really an interesting place and the people as well. Been there twice and I can really say it’s just great visiting the country again.