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> Japan Starter Kit, An introduction to the Land of the Rising Sun
xerius
post Nov 7 2009, 09:24 AM
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The island nation of Japan is one of Asia's most celebrated and unique destinations, yet it is one often poorly understood or represented in the world of travel. This travel kit is meant to provide the basics for people planning a trip to the country. As would be expected for someplace as modern and "well-connected" as Japan, there is a wealth of information about the country available online, but often the best and most up-to-date details are only in Japanese. That said, it pays to supplement any travel guide (or perusal of Travelpod forums!) with a little online research, and sites such as the Japan National Tourism Organization and japan-guide.com are good places to start.

Costs & Money

Perhaps an odd place to begin, but this is probably the one area where the greatest misconceptions tend to occur. Everyone has heard that Japan is a terribly expensive country to visit. And in reality, compared to much of the rest of Asia, this is often true. But current global economic conditions and strong yen aside, travel here can be surprisingly affordable, even cheap at times. The trick is to be careful on your spending. A night out on the town in Tokyo and other cities can add up fast if you don't watch it. Temple-hopping in Kyoto for days on end can rack up a shocking total in admission fees as well. But with a little selective planning, spending can be limited to a strict minimum, with plenty of unique cultural experiences to boast about back home.

Transportation here can be a killer, but foreign visitors have an exceptional trump card available in the form of the JR Pass. Accommodation is nowhere near the low prices of Southeast Asia and India, but what you pay for is typically very good value indeed. Restaurants are normally no more expensive than their counterparts in North America and Western Europe, and if the many great lunch specials are taken advantage of, they can be a tremendous value. Those wishing to scrimp have many options available, from food stalls and cheap ramen shops to fast-food donburi (rice bowl) joints and the ubiquitous convenience stores. And last but not least, "100 Yen" stores have spread across the country, offering anything from household tools and cutlery to cheap snacks and memorable souvenirs.

And if you count yourself among those for whom money is no object, Japan has luxury hotels, sky-is-the-limit shopping, and gourmet dining to please even the pickiest.

Currency
The Japanese yen is currently riding very strong in the global economic downturn. The U.S. dollar is particularly weak at this time, sitting around ¥89 at the moment (as opposed to the usual ¥115-120). It's a good idea therefore to get the best exchange rate possible. This inevitably means relying on ATMs, as banks and exchange shops usually offer pretty poor rates. The problem is finding a place to access an ATM. In fact, cash machines are almost everywhere, but most Japanese banks will not accept foreign cards. The one fail-safe option is to visit postal ATMs, which are always linked to international networks. Do keep in mind opening hours though: 9 to 5 on weekdays, 9 to 12 on Saturdays, with Sundays and holidays off. Apart from that, Citibank has branches in the largest Japanese cities and convenience store 7-11 has recently started allowing access for international cards at its in-branch machines.

The biggest surprise for most international visitors to Japan is how cash-based the economy here. People carry about sums of cash in their wallets that would be shocking or even stupid in other countries. While major department stores and chain restaurants regularly accept credit cards, visitors cannot depend on their MasterCards or Visas seeing them through a trip in the country. However uncomfortable it may seem, carrying the equivalent of US$500 or more is perfectly normal (and the number of pickpockets here is extremely low).

Regions

While its countrymen are convinced of its smallness, the mountainous archipelago of Japan stretches quite a sizeable length. The resulting differences in terrain and climate have led to the development of fairly distinct regions. These roughly correspond to the main islands of the country, with the largest island of Honshū subdivided into five smaller regions, based on both geography and historical development.

Hokkaidō is the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. The last to be incorporated into the country (at the end of the Edo Era), it is in many ways the least Japanese region. Best known for its vast, sparsely inhabited swathes of nature, it is home to perhaps Japan's greatest national parks: Daisetsuzan, Akan and Shiretoko. Highly popular among domestic tourists for its scenic attractions in summer, the island also draws in large numbers of winter sports fans with the fantastic powder of its mountains in the colder months. The cities of Otaru and Hakodate offer plenty of historical remnants, while Sapporo buzzes with nightlife, great food, and Japan's oldest brewery. Hokkaidō lies outside of the summer monsoon zone and also tends to avoid most typhoons that hit the country, but its short spring arrives late and its winter tends to be early, long and frigid.

Honshū
  • Tōhoku comprises the six prefectures at the north of Japan's main island of Honshū. Historically a neglected backwater, it lies off the main tourist path, and few foreign visitors head this way. Most of its cultural attractions are tied to the feudal era, and its lower population density has blessed it with a wealth of natural beauty, as well as a charming rural character. Highlights include the castle town of Hirosaki, the tree-lined samurai quarter of Kakunodate, the caldera lakes of Towada-ko and Tazawa-ko, the Buddhist relics of Hiraizumi, and the many islands of picturesque Matsushima. Perhaps most famous among Japanese people are Tōhoku's festivals, the most celebrated of which are Aomori's Nebuta, Akita's Kantō, and Sendai's Tanabata.
  • Kantō is home to Japan's surging, mega-packed capital: Tokyo. This megalopolis alone can fill an entire visit - seeking old traditions in the historic districts of Asakusa and Ueno, checking out the freshest of fish in Tsukiji, counting brand-name stores in Ginza, marveling at the neon of Shinjuku or watching the amazing youth culture of Shibuya and Harajuku. But outside of Tokyo are numerous other, less familiar attractions. To the south is the old temple town and former capital of Kamakura, with its massive, bronze Buddha statue. Nearby is the bustling waterfront city of Yokohama, home to foreigners' old houses and the country's largest Chinatown. The scenic playground of Hakone sits southwest of the capital, offering numerous, unique forms of transport, as well as dramatic views of Mt. Fuji. And northwards from Tokyo is the outstandingly vibrant shrine complex at Nikkō, the burial place of shogunate founder Tokugawa Ieyasu and his grandson.
  • Chūbu is the central heartland of Honshū. Its southern flank comprises the industrial and commercial regions of Shizuoka and Aichi Prefectures, the latter dominated by the sprawling, but increasingly cosmopolitan metropolis of Nagoya, a former castle town. In the middle of the region sit Japan's highest mountains, an area commonly referred to as "the Japan Alps". Hiking, hot springs and winter sports are perhaps the most obvious activities here, but the historic streets of Takayama and the castle town of Matsumoto are also notable draws. A small stretch of the old mountain route from Kyoto to Edo (modern Tokyo) remains around the southwestern edge of Nagano Prefecture, most notably in the well-preserved post towns of Magome and Tsumago. Across the mountains on the Sea of Japan coast lies the historic area of Hokuriku, the principal town of which is Kanazawa - a "little Kyoto" famed for its traditional garden and geisha quarters. Close by is the old Zen center of Eihei-ji, a vast temple complex in the forested mountains of Fukui Prefecture.
  • Kinki (or Kansai) sees the greatest amount of tourism outside of Tokyo. The vast sea of concrete that is Osaka may not seem much to the eye, but it offers some of Japan's best modern restaurants, entertainment and nightlife, not to mention a friendly populace and unique character. The biggest star of the region is Kyoto, the former capital and the country's main center of traditional culture and historical architecture. While its overall appearance has been marred by hasty postwar development, it remains one of Japan's biggest highlights and shouldn't be missed by the first-time visitor. South of Kyoto is an even older capital: the laid-back town of Nara, with its legion of sacred deer, mammoth historical park, and fascinating Buddhist sites. In the west of Kinki/Kansai is the international port city of Kobe and the castle town of Himeji, home to what is widely considered the country's best feudal-era fortress. Less visited by foreign visitors are the sacred sites of Ise and Koya-san - the former the site of Japan's foremost Shintō shrine, and the latter a Buddhist monastic site in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture.
  • Chūgoku is Honshū's westernmost region, stretching out towards Kyūshū from Kinki. The most (in)famous destination in this area is Hiroshima, now a friendly, modern city with old-world charm, but better known as the site of the world's first atomic bombing. Its Peace Memorial Museum and surrounding park will be a focus of any visit, but no one should skip nearby Miyajima, a sacred, mountainous island to the southwest that features one of Japan's most memorable shrines. Back eastwards is the old castle town (and now industrial city) of Okayama, with a lovely, traditional garden and reconstructed fortress. This city is particularly useful as an access point for Shikoku, along with the neighboring, historic city of Kurashiki, known for its preserved old center set along willow-lined canals. Across the mountains are the less-frequented prefectures of Tottori and Shimane, the former known for its sand dunes and the latter for its relaxed, lakeside capital of Matsue, holy Shintō complex at Izumo, and beautifully traditional, inland town of Tsuwano, set in a rural valley.
Shikoku lies south of the Chūgoku region across the island-dotted Seto Inland Sea. Frequently overlooked by tourists, it is perhaps the least visited of Japan's regions. While this was historically due to its isolation (the island wasn't linked to the mainland by bridge until 1988), this modern trait remains somewhat puzzling. With a slower-paced, rural character, Shikoku has preserved an atmosphere absent in most neighboring regions, despite the increasingly modern nature of its four main cities. The oldest, and most famous tourist draw here is its 88-temple circuit, which winds around the entire island (and easily demands the most time). But possibly its greatest attraction is the stunning mountain hideaway known as the Iya Valley, a wild, long-inaccessible area of verdant scenery, thatched houses and vine bridges. Shikoku's principal cities also attract, from Takamatsu's lovely garden at Ritsurin-koen to Matsuyama's original castle and neighboring hot spring resort of Dōgo to Tokushima's nationally famous summer dance festival.

Kyūshū is the southernmost of the main islands and the one with the oldest documented history. A major player in the reform movements of the 19th century, it is now a rather relaxed, rural corner of the country, known for its hot springs, volcanoes and fiery shōchū (potato- or other grain-based alcohol). Its urban representative is friendly Fukuoka, a fast-changing, modern city full of interesting architecture, welcoming locals and tasty food. In the west of the region is vibrant Nagasaki, best known as the site of WWII's second atomic bombing, but maintaining many examples of its long history as a cosmopolitan port. In central Kyūshū is the large city of Kumamoto, a castle town with its own interesting attractions, but also a fine jumping-off point for the scenic ancient caldera of Aso-san. To the east are the prefectures of Oita and Miyazaki, the first known for its hedonistic spa town of Beppu, and the second for its beach resorts and sub-tropical scenery. At the bottom of Kyūshū sits Kagoshima, the bayside Japanese counterpart to Naples, with the fitful volcanic peak of Sakurajima facing it across the water.

Okinawa is the last of Japan's main regions. Like Hokkaidō, it was a late addition to the country and it maintains a fairly distinctive local culture separate from the mainland. The main island of Okinawa and its capital, Naha, are heavily influenced by their American military presence, but they are the center of a highly developed domestic tourism industry. The other main island groups of the Miyako-shoto and Yaeyama-shoto remain more laid-back and local in character. Miyako-jima is known as a sort of slacker beach-bum haven, while Ishigaki in the Yaeyama-shoto attracts tourists for the wilds of tropical Iriomote-jima and the preserved Ryūkyū traditions of Taketomi-jima.

Best Time to Visit

Japan has four very distinct seasons, plus a somewhat variable, but usually sticky monsoon period in the early summer. The Japanese spring is famous worldwide for its cherry blossoms, which provide one the most memorable opportunities to visit. March's weather can be unpredictable, but April and May tend to be warm and pleasant (though the cherry blossoms tend to accompanied by frequent rain). June sees the arrival of the tsuyu, Japan's official "rainy season". This can vary from nearly daily downpours to practically no rain depending on the year. Summer begins from roughly mid-July and is invariably hot and humid, with the lowland areas positively steaming. This, however, is one of the best times to visit the mountains, where temperatures remain pleasant for hiking purposes. Typhoons start to hit Japan from roughly August, with the greatest potential around September to early October. Autumn is likely the best time to visit the country outside of spring. Temperatures are comfortable from mid-to-late September and the weather is generally fine and clear. October sees the arrival of fall foliage in the mountainous regions (earlier in parts of Hokkaidō) with the lower-lying cities - most notably Kyoto - seeing changing colors further into November or even early December. Winter can be chilly and blustery across the country, with heavy snowfalls in Hokkaidō, Tōhoku and along the Sea of Japan coast, but great skiing conditions in the mountains. Okinawa never gets truly "cold" (although you might not want to swim there in mid-January!).

Transportation

The transportation network in Japan is top-notch and extremely comprehensive, with only the most rural of regions requiring private transport.

Trains are by far the most popular and useful means of getting around. You may have heard about the exceptional punctuality of Japanese trains. Well, except in cases of extreme weather, it's true. Trains here leave within seconds of the scheduled departure time and their doors tend to open within centimeters of their designated space on the platform. The only catch here is the cost. Outside of metropolitan transit, train travel here is not cheap, so if you plan to do much of it, you're advised to get a Japan Rail Pass. These passes come in 7-day, 14-day and 21-day options and must be purchased outside of the country. At only ¥28,300 (approximately US$310 at the current exchange), the 7-day pass pays for itself in roughly one return ticket from Tokyo to Osaka, not to mention any other JR travel in between. Flying into Tokyo, activating your pass a few days later for a multi-day trip to Kyūshū and returning within a week for example would mean tremendous savings. The one thing to keep in mind is that there are other private rail networks around the country, most notably Meitetsu in the Nagoya area and Kintetsu in and around Osaka/Kyoto/Nara.

Buses are a good option for more regional travel, and the networks tend to be very comprehensive as well. They are obviously a good deal slower than most trains (especially the bullet train), but price-wise they are usually more affordable. For travelers, they are most useful for accessing mountainous or rural areas off the rail network. In terms of affordability, however, they are perhaps most attractive for their night services. While nowhere near as comfortable as a bed in a hotel, they cover journeys between major cities overnight for a price sometimes less than half that of the corresponding train fare. In addition, the Japan Rail Pass is valid on some (that is, JR) highway buses (although the bullet train is generally far more preferable).

Renting a car is an option within almost any Japanese city or town. The trick may be the language barrier - staff cannot be expected to understand English well (or at all), which can make for a difficult rental process. The other concern is getting out of major Japanese cities. While English signage is now very common, the faceless suburbs of most urban areas and the confounding traffic can provide tremendous frustration. Driving within or out of Tokyo (or Osaka, Yokohama or Nagoya, for that matter) can try the patience of even the calmest drivers. While many cars are now equipped with navigation systems, Japanese people rely upon these as holy gospel, leading to aggravating circumstances where driver after driver is following the same computer-directed path. Outside of the cities though, a car can be a tremendous boon, particularly in the mountains or in rural areas like Hokkaidō, Tōhoku or Hokuriku's Noto-hantō.

Cycling is another fine option for Japan. Drivers in the countryside are generally courteous towards cyclists, roads are well-maintained and the topography offers fantastic views along the way (as well as severe slopes in some parts!). Again, cycling your way out of a major city is not much advised - you can always take your bike on a train out to a more rural station and start from there (bring along a bike bag or purchase one at a shop). Within cities, bicycles can be extremely handy, offering a quick and cheap way to get from place to place. In Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, they can sometimes be faster than cars within the immediate center, not to mention much cheaper to park. Most cities have rental locations somewhere around the train station - ask at the local tourist office for information. Rates are typically around ¥200 an hour, or ¥800-1500 a day.

Flying is as safe, reliable and extensive as one would expect in Japan. Most significant cities have a nearby airport, and Tokyo and Osaka have flights to practically every corner of the country. The question is whether it's worth the extra expense. For getting to Okinawa, it's almost mandatory (save for a few long boats from Tokyo, Osaka and Kagoshima), and it can save a significant amount of time in getting to farther-flung areas like Hokkaidō and Kyūshū from Tokyo. Cost-wise, flights are comparable to bullet train prices, but obviously air travel isn't covered by the Japan Rail Pass either.

Accommodation

Japan offers a great variety of places to stay, from modern chains to traditional Japanese inns to kitschy capsule and love hotels. For the businessman on an expense account, all the major luxury options are available. The many varieties of "business hotel" cover the standard, Western-style hotel option, frequently within easy reach of a major station. Most quintessentially "Japanese" are the ryokan and minshuku - the former being a sort of a traditional inn and the latter more like an old-style, family-run bed & breakfast. Hostels are located in many of the major tourist destinations, although they are sometimes rather regimented and/or inconveniently located. Capsule hotels offer a cheap and uniquely Japanese experience and they often include hot spring-fed baths and saunas; the drawback is their somewhat claustrophobic nature and the fact that most are restricted to men. Last is the wild card of the lot: love hotels. Meant mostly for (young) couples needing a quiet place to spend time in private (or businessmen seeking to go someplace with their mistress!), they charge in slots of several hours according to the time of day, with an overnight option generally available from 10pm. Count on about ¥4000 per room for the latter.

Outside of the standard hotel option, travelers can also opt for a night in a manga-kissa (comic book cafe) or internet cafe. Overnight options can be quite affordable at roughly ¥2500 for eight hours.

Language & Communication

Despite decades of integration into the global economy, Japan has a low level of effective English speakers. Much of this is due to the education system's focus on rote memorization rather than practical language usage, and Japanese people are frequently shy to speak English even after years of study. Although this situation has been improving in recent years, foreign visitors cannot expect the average local to communicate in or understand spoken English, even young people. That said, Japanese people are very happy to assist visiting tourists, regardless of the language barrier. The important thing is to be patient and understanding - sometimes simple, slowly spoken language is all it takes to get your point across. And, given the structure of English-language studies in the country, many Japanese people can understand written English much easier than conversational, so it might be a good idea to try a pen and paper instead.

For those who have studied Japanese, people within the country will be very accommodating of attempts to use it. Even the simplest of Japanese abilities win frequent praise, as many locals are still very surprised to encounter foreigners who can speak their language. So, if you know even a little bit, give it a shot!

Internet & Telephone
Comparatively rare five or six years ago, internet cafés have become quite common (and more affordable) in most major cities. Rates vary rather widely, starting as low as ¥200 and going up to as high as ¥800 for one hour. Overnight "lock-in" rates (mentioned in the accommodation section earlier) can be very cheap, if you're of the nocturnal persuasion. If you are carrying your own notebook along with you, many business hotels now have LAN-based internet access available, and occasionally wi-fi. Electricity is 100V, with outlets corresponding to the ungrounded North American style - check your plugs for compatibility and bring along an appropriate adaptor if necessary.

The global mobile phone craze hit Japan years ago, but there are still a fair few payphones about. For local calls, coins are sufficient for payphones - just be careful with those ¥100 coins, as they won't give you back the unused amount! (Unspent ¥10 coins are returned, however.) For international calling, it's better to get a prepaid calling card from KDDI, NTT or Brastel, all of which are available at convenience stores. Most foreign mobile phones will not work here due to different technologies, so unless yours is a 3G model made with Japan in mind, don't count on getting access. For European visitors, GSM does not exist here, so it is impossible to simply switch out a SIM card for local access. All of the major carriers in Japan (DoCoMo, SoftBank and au) offer prepaid and rental services. Expect costs to be around ¥3000-4000 per week.

My Personal Favorites

Pick up any travel guide and they will immediately tell you not to miss Tokyo and Kyoto. Honestly, I can't disagree - for the first time visitor, they offer the two best examples of the modern and traditional faces of Japan. But if you've got more time available, definitely have a look around. Nara isn't exactly short on tourists, but it tends to sit in the shadow of the big boys. Only an hour or so south of Kyoto, it's easy to incorporate into a short visit, but give it a little time and you may end up enjoying it even more than its bigger, northern neighbor. Hiroshima and Miyajima really shouldn't be missed. The contrast between the memorial park area and Hiroshima's friendly, modern city buzz is undeniably stimulating, and Miyajima offers both historical treasures and fantastic views - they're a great two-day combination. Japan has regrettably done a pretty bad job of preserving its architectural heritage (well, firebombing in WWII didn't help), but Kanazawa, Takayama and the Kiso Valley (notably the villages of Narai and the aforementioned Magome and Tsumago) will quickly whisk you back into the Japan of yesteryear. All of the above have the advantage of being perfectly doable within a two-week visit, using Tokyo, Nagoya and Kyoto/Osaka as one's main bases.

For repeat visitors, I'm a big fan of places that are off the beaten path. Shikoku and Tōhoku are frequently overlooked, but they really shouldn't be. Shikoku's Iya Valley is one of Japan's true marvels, and the cities of Matsuyama and Takamatsu offer all the modern amenities, while simultaneously functioning as great bases for nearby attractions (Uchiko, Ozu and Uwajima near Matsuyama, and Kotohira, Nao-shima, Shodo-shima and Marugame around Takamatsu). In Tōhoku, the attractive city of Sendai provides a lot of the same urban benefits of Osaka and Tokyo on a smaller scale, while also feeling open, uncrowded and green. Perhaps its biggest positive is its nearness to other significant sites, namely Matsushima, the temple complex of Yama-dera, ski resorts around Yamagata and Zao, and the sleepily historic Hiraizumi.

Last, but not least, try to catch a festival somewhere. Summer is the best time, followed by spring and fall (a "hanami" - or cherry-blossom-viewing - in the former is fantastic fun). Japan's matsuri are an opportunity to see the locals and their most relaxed, friendly and drunken best, and the energy of a festival will easily be among the highlights of your stay.
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wisconsin_fan81
post Nov 7 2009, 06:15 PM
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Thank you for the info! Japan is number one on my travel list, I want to go so bad!!


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starlagurl
post Nov 9 2009, 12:58 PM
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That's incredible, Matt. Great work. I'll sign you up as a Local Expert very soon!


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