What’s It Really Like to Travel Japan?

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Women in Kimonos

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.

Some examples?

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:

Non-F

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.

Akihabara

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.

Tendon (Tempura Bowl)

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.

Japanese Muscle Man Fishmonger

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.

Automatic Sushi

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.

Woman in Tokyo

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.


READ MORE:

Where to Stay in Tokyo: Best Areas and Accommodation


Women in Kimonos

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.

Kyoto Gardens

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 Toilet Controls

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.

Evil Birdie

Cute rules.

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 Photobomb

Japanese people love to photobomb.

Do they EVER love to photobomb!

But what is the single most shocking aspect of all?

Japanese Vending Machine

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.

In Kyoto

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.

What's it REALLY like to travel in Japan? | Adventurous Kate
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112 thoughts on “What’s It Really Like to Travel Japan?”

  1. I love the article so much is true but I hope you don’t mind me correcting just one thing.

    The Yukata is the summer kimono, ie all the clothes you would have witnessed would have been Yukata not Kimono.

    While Yukata and Kimono are commonly worn in big tourist cities (particularly in Kyoto where it feels like half the people are wearing them am I right) your intial assumption was correct that they are more for festivals and other special occasions.

    I hope this helps and I really enjoyed reading your article.

  2. I have never before been super interested in going to Japan; I thought, “Eh, I guess I’d go there,” but it’s never been at the top of my list. Now that I’ve read this post, you have made me really want to go!!

  3. I have worked in Japan twice – once in Yokohama and Yamagata Prefecture – so I’m always interested in how other people see Japan.

    Actually, when I was younger and before I worked in Japan, I thought women wore kimonos all the time. So it was something shocking when I realized they didn’t. But at fireworks festivals, I would often see people wearing traditional clothing. Also, it’s funny you included a picture of a vending machine. They are everywhere in Japan!

  4. Japan is one of the few places that I feel would make me do endless double takes at the most simple of things. Such as Toilet buttons and vending machines that sell misc. things that I’ve never seen in the US. You’re write up is amazing. It looks like such a melting pot of it’s own culture if that makes sense. Mashing up traditional and modern.

  5. Wow, you have really summed it up well! I feel like it is so hard to describe Japan to people who haven’t been, but you have really hit the nail on the head in this post! The only thing I disagree with is the efficiency comment. Maybe some things are more efficient, but to work in a Japanese office is to see just how frustratingly inefficient a workplace can be. 😉 In terms of trains, they are definitely some of the most efficient (and punctual) in the world, though!

    It remains firmly at the top of my favourite places list.

  6. I loved this entire article! I visited Tokyo in December, and I was so amazed at everything I saw. I spent hours at a park, and even more awkwardly at 7-11 just staring at the ready-to-eat foods. I took photos of everything and anything I saw, and ended up with THOUSANDS of photos, that I started my own blog to share the amazing things I had seen.

    You are so on point about it not being that expensive. I found the prices cheaper than the prices here in Hawaii. If you want an expensive vacation, Hawaii is a place to visit. Everything here, except fresh fruits, is expensive. ):

  7. Japan, its history, culture, traditions and the lives of its people are as different as they are unique.
    However, what makes Japan so much more then just a chain of islands, is its diversity in its respect toward the natural world, as well as the metropolises that lines its shores and mountain plateaus.

  8. Great article and thank you for sharing. I’m flying out to Japan in about a week. It will be my first time there and I’m sure it will be a memorable visit. Can’t wait to see what it’s really like in person.

  9. I’m really glad you said you think Japan is a great destination! 🙂

    I’ve been living in Japan for almost a decade now, travelled to almost everywhere, sharing my experience in my blog.
    It’s very interesting for me to read what tourists to Japan felt when they came here for the first time.

    In fact, many things are not as they seem to be at first sight.
    My impressions of Japan when I visited as a tourist for 3 weeks were similar to yours. But when you actually live here, you’ll see “through” many things.

    Just a few things, I want to add:
    Kimono are only worn for very special occasions (e.g. weddings). Most likely you’ll see girls wearing yukata (that’s what the girls wear in your photos) – especially in summer.

    August is the hottest month. The heat in Japan is very humid and for people who are not used to it, it can be very tough. After all, you came to travel, to be outside all day. Be prepared to drown in your own sweat and then freeze as soon as you enter a store or a train. There are also millions of insects during that time. Some can be dangerous.
    On the other hand, August comes with some great summer festivals and fireworks.
    I recommend visiting during cherry blossom season in spring or for autumn foliage in fall when temperatures are mild.

    People keep saying Tokyo is expensive, because rents are insanely high. It’s certainly expensive to live there, but not to travel around.

  10. I agree with everything you’ve read here! Those were all observations I made on my first (and only) trip to Japan. And now I’ve majored in Japanese cultural and language studies I still agree with the remarks I made back then and you made here.
    I will go to Japan for a year in September and hope to discover many more great aspects of Japan. And bring some travel tips to the travel community of course! 🙂

  11. Some nice comments, but it seems like you barely touched the surface of Japan. Some of your comments are typical for tourists versus long time residents living here.

    Prices

    I agree, it’s not expensive as some people claim, on p with NYC or Paris.

    People

    The people are not as nice as you might expect, depends on where you go.

    Food

    You obviously didn’t spend any time in a convenience store or the number of fast food restaurants.

    Weather

    Didn’t do much research..:) the summers here are pretty miserable, that’s why my wife and I travel in Europe during the summers.

    Clothing

    No, kimonos are not worn that much anywhere, except in Kyoto, and even there they are not that common. Most photos of Japan from the news show people wearing Western clothing (but of course Japanese versions of it many times).

  12. Awesome! I learned so much reading this. I’ve never been to Japan, but it’s definitely on my list, and hearing some of your comments just whet my appetite even more! I love going to new places and being surprised and amazed by what the people there are up to.

  13. You’re so right, and this article has brought me on the verge of tears, as I have just booked my second trip to Japan (for 23 days) and I am so excited! The funniest thing is, it was your picture of the vending machine that made me well up – god I miss those vending machines!

  14. Hello! Great read 🙂 how long were you in Japan for and what areas did you go to? I’m trying to estimate how far I can go in 2 weeks!

  15. farzana larney

    love this post..Japan is on my bucket list but always read how expensive it is..but love the way u broke it down regarding various price points…pics are awesome…

  16. Being Japanese, i love that you’ve really enjoyed your visits to Japan!

    And I can’t agree more that every time I’m there, I see so many great ideas / solutions that are so original and clever, but ones that would never work back here in the UK, because we simply don’t have the same level of dedication of workers. People do seem to take work (sometimes too) seriously in Japan, no matter what their jobs are.

    There is one thing I do want to point out about Kimono-wearing in Japan – it’s very rare for people to be wearing Kimonos outside of formal cerermonies. The Kimono-like outfits you’ve taken photos of are in fact Yukatas. They’re casual summer versions, and girls would wear them to a special event in the summer such as summer “matsuri”s, of which there are many during July and August.

    In Kyoto, I have also seen many girls walking around in Kimono / Yukata. I’ve also seen foreign tourists taking photos of them, but actually most of those girls are Chinese or Korean. There are little shops dotted all around Kyoto where they will rent out (and dress you in) Kimonos / Yukatas for the afternoon / day whatever. Can’t remember the exact cost, but I remember thinking it was reasonable. Perhaps you could try it on your next visit!

  17. Japan looks amazing! The food is extravagant, the sights are breathtaking; and all-in-all, magical. I am only 16 at the moment, but I shall save up to travel to this place, it will be an experience I will never forget. Is there anything I need to watch out for? For future awareness, so at least I know what I have to look out for.

  18. Perhaps things have changed in the last few years, but as I make plans for my upcoming trip to Japan, i’m astonished at how AFFORDABLE everything is. Aside from long-term transportation like Shinkansen passes or ferries, accommodations are a third of the price of where I live (in Canada), with airbnb and inns being even cheaper. To the point where I have to question the validity of the accommodation. But yes, they are legit and so cheap, I can put aside money for buying all sorts of cute loot!

  19. I’ve spent a total of almost six months in Japan (multiple trips), and I disagree with some of what you say here.

    First of all ‘reverence of nature’ HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!! You might think so if you look at a lot of the historic places/art in Kyoto, but if you actually get out into the rural areas, one finds a much more complicated story. Yes, some modern Japanese people revere nature … but a lot of them do not. For example, out of the hundreds of rivers in Japan, at most three are free-flowing. About 40% of Japan’s land area is covered with cedar monoculture – which at first, may not seem so bad, since they are *forests* … but if you compare them with the ever-diminishing older forests of Japan, you find that the monoculture forests are lifeless. They ruin local rural economies, since the cedar trees are currently of low value, yet locals cannot take advantage of traditional sources of income such as, say, gathering mushrooms, because the mushrooms do not grow in the monoculture forests. Besides, the monoculture forests greatly increase the risk of landslide, which in turn gives the government an excuse to pour even more concrete in rural areas which already have lots of useless concrete projects.

    I could go on and on. Basically, I think the modern Japanese are no more connected to nature than modern Americans.

    The book “Dogs and Demons” elaborates on a lot of these issues. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but it explains a lot of the things I saw in Japan.

    I do agree with you that Japan’s reputation as an expensive place to travel is exaggerated. Even lodging can be cheap if you know what to look for and if you are willing to rough it, especially outside of Tokyo. For example, I spent a night on Miyajima (a famous sacred island where rooms cost 50,000 yen/night at a minimum and are usually much more than that) for only 300 yen because I had my own tent and that is the fee for using the campground.

    I would not say that every day in Japan “filled with new discoveries and cultural difference and utter delights” but that is possibly because I was there for so long.

  20. This is a great post, pretty much everything you’ve mentioned is what I remember fondly from my visit. I spent 3 weeks in Japan which definitely wasn’t enough time either, but it gives me another reason to return and explore more!

  21. I have to agree with everything you said, Japan is a very Amazing country to explore. I saved heaps on food in Kyoto buy going to the local supermarket and buying my breakfast and dinner for the week i was their. Where i was staying their weren’t any cafes and the hotels restaurants where expensive. The one thing i loved the most where the older ladies that where so amazingly polite and helpful. The great thing was that all the attractions where really cheap and worth every cent that you paid.

    A place to visit for sure for the great food to the amazing people you will meet over their.

  22. Nicely done! I visited Japan for the first time last year, and felt very much as the author about the place. I’m going twice this year, and truly cannot believe that it took me so long to discover this amazing land. I may have to blog when I get back this time! Thanks for your insights and stories. You made me cry at lunch today. …in a good way.

  23. I’ve just come back from a 4 week trip around Japan travelling from Hokkaido and flying south to Okinawa. I love how you summed up everything I loved about the country and would go back tomorrow. I was with my husband and we are both in our early 70s. Travelling independently was fun with always someone to help when we became lost..we would hire a portable wifi next time as maps were extremely hard to follow.

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  25. Excellent article. Every thing you said was truth…. I keep telling my friends that I could not walk one city block without stopping numerous times to marvel. It is so different, that when I came across an North American thing it felt like a mini assault on my senses. I love Japan, an a senior citizen and traveled there alone. I went for night walks, down alleys, in all types of areas and never ever once felt threatened… After a while I never even thought about it.

  26. Great blog post!

    We are leaving for Japan in a couple of weeks and have scoured both the internet and youtube for any and all things Japanese. This read was one of the best.

    Arigatou gozaimashita!

  27. I love Japan and everything Japanese. The country is an addiction and you will find it hard to flush out the memories out of your system once you go back to your country. Infact you will crave for more. I have visited twice in as many years and everytine i think its my last trip but then i am back and visiting places that are even more beautiful then the ones previously visited. The advantage with frequent visit it that it makes you a smart traveller and every new trip teaches you how to communicate better, explore the non touristy places and makes you seem more of a local than a foreigner as you are willing to experiment new food new places. Also subsequent visits are always cheaper cause you have figured out how to use public transport and also you start looking out for deals . I agree that it is not an expensive place as most people think it to be and its always cheaper to tour on your own then hire a travel agency. A ticket from mumbai to tokyo is half of what it is from mumbai to Seoul or Taipei. A good three star hotel room is cheaper than a similar hotel in Mumbai and perhaps anywhere else in Europr or US. My suggestion to all is to must visit this beautiful country atleast once in your lifetime. A 15 day tour is the best way to see it.

  28. My husband, 8 year old daughter and I are just back from a 3 week trip to Japan. I agree wholeheartedly with all your observations!! Japan has made a deep impression and we are in awe of the beauty of the people, the culture and the landscape.

  29. my favourite things have got to be the toilets: there’s nothing better than that cleaning system. I cant go back.
    The politeness gets all a bit too much after being there for a few weeks. Sounds bad, but i kind of thought to myself alot of people were quite robotic and i wondered what they were like when they got home.

    My favorite part of Japan was definitely Hokkado though. it is so peaceul and the scenery so beatiful Who knew they have so many amazing volcanoes.

    Check out my 1 month itinerary on my blog post

    http://ajourneyintotheunknown.com/things-1-month-japan-itinerary/

    thanks

    Kevin

  30. Great post . Have booked tickets for June this year . Not a great time to visit , but then that was the only month when we as a family could think of a holiday.
    Your post removed many doubts that I had and was contemplating if 14 days was too much a time to spend there ? But I guess my senior citizen parents and teenage girls and us as a couple would find plenty to do.
    Thanks for an enlightening post !

  31. We are going in August for the first time and this was a great read for me. Every one keeps telling us how hot and miserable it will be in August, but unfortunately that is the time we will be there. Really hoping it doesn’t put too much of a damper on our time there.

  32. Nice post. Thanks for the great post. I think Japan is one of the most fascinating place in the world. Japan is so unique and full of surprises. I agree that every should visit Japan once in a lifetime.

  33. All your photos of Japan really capture it in all it’s glory! The food you tried looks so yummy! If anyone would like some help learning some Japanese before their trip, I would be more than happy to help you!
    Shota

  34. Great article! You’ve done an amazing job of painting a picture of what Japan is actually like. Sometimes as tourists we get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the big city that we forget to actually EXPERIENCE the culture as the natives might. I think others who read this will find it really helpful, and it’ll also make it easier for them to make the most of their experiences when they actually go to Japan, so thank you for sharing!

    I say this speaking from personal experience… I went to Japan for the first time last year (I was studying abroad, and I spent the semester living with a host family in Shibuya), and the first step I took out of Shibuya station left me completely awestruck. If I were left to explore the country on my own, I’m really not sure what my experience would have been like, but thanks to my host family, I was able to experience Japan through the eyes of a local.

    Of course everyone can’t have the luxury of living with a Japanese family, but there are other ways! In fact, when I was there I went on a few trips with a company called Japango that partners you with what they call a ‘friend-guide’–a Japanese native who accompanies you on trips to some amazing places that most tourists might miss! The tour that I did was one where we got to harvest our own tea leaves, and it was by far the most memorable experience of my stay. Everyone knows Japan is famous for tea, but to go out into the plantations and actually see where some of the world’s highest quality tea comes from? Simply amazing. I recommend it to all my friends, so check it out if you’re interested. (their English site is japango-em2.com)

  35. The more and more I read articles or blogs related to Japan … I feel like I am really experiencing this country. Yea , I am insane about this country , like everything stuff of Japan astonishes me from Food to its politeness , from punctuality to high technology (Japanology, it cannot found nowhere else in the world except Japan ???? # LoveJapan?❤

  36. I loved that you’ve talked about the fashion of the women in Tokyo! I love Japanese fashion and think that they’re regularly underrated. I cannot wait to just sit and do some people watching when I’m there! Thank you for this article.

  37. Kate, this post is so spot in. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    As someone who has spent 7 years in Japan, I’m seriously impressed with how well you’ve discribed it!
    Oh, and kudos on traveling in August. Always the hardest month to get though – I actually got heat stroke in Kyoto and went to the ER by ambulance. No joke.

    That being said, I have to admit August is the absolute BEST for shaved ice, festivals, and fireworks. So it’s not all that bad.

  38. Reading this blog really makes me look forward to go to Japan! The JP government should pay you for promoting their country 😉

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