Amber Mezbourian’s Guide to Japan
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Japan is a country of contrasts: one day you can be shopping and clubbing in a big city; the next you can be in a sleepy rural village surrounded by rice fields, feeling as though you’ve stepped back in time. Those stereotypes you may imagine – of kimono-clad geisha, ancient temples and moss-filled gardens – do actually exist … but alongside them you’ll find gaudy pachinko (slot machine) parlours, seedy hostess bars, an excess of cute merchandise (each prefecture has its own personalised Hello Kitty souvenirs to persuade visitors to part with their yen), and a vending machine on every corner. Wherever you go, you won’t be able to escape this juxtaposition of traditional and modern, spiritual and material, for long. But it’s precisely these contrasts that make travelling in Japan so interesting and, at times, so surreal.
Japan consists of four main islands and thousands of smaller ones, divided up into 47 prefectures. Eighty per cent of the landmass is mountainous, meaning that the flatter regions tend to be very crowded. As a result, the majority of Japanese people live in urban areas – just head to Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing if you want a taste of the hectic bustle of city life. However, it is very easy to get away from it all and experience a different side of life here, be it hiking to the summit of a beautiful mountain, roadtripping across the vast wilderness of Hokkaido, or soaking up the sun on a deserted beach. Whatever kind of trip you’re looking for, you will be able to find something that satisfies your needs.
Many people consider Japan to be an expensive country, and as a result it doesn’t tend to feature frequently on the standard round-the-world itinerary taking in South East Asia and Australia. Of course, compared to places like Thailand it is expensive … but there are still bargains to be found, not least the Japan Rail Pass available to those who enter on a tourist visa. There are ways to get around whilst on a budget, so you shouldn’t automatically write it off as being out of your price range.
My own adventures in Japan began in August 2010, when I started working as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Programme. I’m the only foreigner living in a small town of around 7000 people, in the very rural prefecture of Yamagata. Since arriving here, I’ve realised a lot of new things: I’m actually a big fan of karaoke; I now feel perfectly at ease bathing naked with a load of strangers; I often won’t get out of bed if there’s an earthquake in the middle of the night; 22 hours of travelling over the course of a normal weekend seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do; and I can also occasionally understand what Japanese people are saying to me if they speak slowly and use dramatic gestures.
I’m having lots of fun exploring this country and am constantly amazed by just how much there is waiting to be discovered here. At times, my life here can feel a very comfortable and familiar … but then something will happen to remind me I’m no longer at home, and once again I’m freshly excited at the prospect of attempting to get under the skin of what is really an incredibly exotic and fascinating destination.
So, if you’re currently in the planning stages and Japan is somewhere that has captured your interest, throw all your preconceptions aside and just take the plunge – you won’t be disappointed!
Japanmay be a relatively small country, but its climate varies greatly from north to south. The northernmost island of Hokkaido has long, cold winters and snow that doesn’t melt until well into spring, whilst the southern archipelago of Okinawa enjoys a tropical climate with a temperature that rarely drops below 15C. The west of the country, bordering the Sea of Japan, receives heavy snowfall throughout the winter, whereas the Pacific side gets less snow, but can still be very cold. The popular tourist destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka only rarely drop below freezing, so travelling here during the winter is fine – just remember your warm clothes. However, during the summer, I tend to need a shower at least twice a day; the heat and humidity across most of the country can be almost unbearable. There’s also a rainy season at the beginning of the summer, with the rains gradually moving northwards. The best times to visit Japan are during the spring and autumn, when the climate tends to be mild and stable. Be aware, however, that these are also the times that everyone else heads here and so it can be very busy.
Because of these climatic extremes, it’s necessary to take the weather into consideration when planning your trip to Japan – you don’t want to find yourself in the north in the middle of winter if all you’ve packed are shorts and t-shirts. Likewise, if you’re expecting a relaxing beach holiday in Okinawa between August and October, you’ll probably find yourself caught in a typhoon instead. You have been warned!
Compared to many other places in Asia, Japan is a dream come true health-wise. No need to obsessively hoard hand sanitiser, wet wipes and Immodium whilst travelling here … tap water across the country is safe to drink, food is generally cooked hygienically, and healthcare is readily available. In one year of living here, I’ve not been ill apart from the odd cold (and maybe hangover!). Nonetheless, it’s still important to take out travel insurance. As a wealthy country with a high standard of living, healthcare costs are also high, and so you should make sure that you’re adequately covered before you get here.
You don’t need any special vaccines for Japan, nor is malaria an issue. However, it’s always sensible to pack a basic first aid kit containing things like plasters, antiseptic wipes and painkillers (painkillers in Japan don’t tend to be as strong as those back home). Whilst hygiene standards here are high, it’s still wise to use some common sense … if a restaurant looks a bit dodgy, don’t eat there. Also be aware that many public bathrooms don’t provide toilet paper. A popular form of advertising for many companies in Japan is to hand out packets of tissues in the street, so I tend to grab a few whenever I get the chance – a simple and free way to solve this problem.
If you do get sick, you won’t have much trouble finding a doctor – just ask the staff at your accommodation and they should point you in the right direction. In larger cities you’ll likely be able to see an English-speaking doctor, but this could be trickier in more rural areas where English isn’t widely spoken. In this case, you might want to take a Japanese speaker with you if possible. You’ll probably have to pay for treatment upfront, so make sure you take plenty of cash, or can show proof that your travel insurance will cover your costs.
Unless you’re planning to work or study in Japan, getting a visa is very simple. If you’re from Ireland or the UK, you’ll be given a temporary visitor visa on arrival – this will be for 90 days, but can be extended for another 90 days if you head to an immigration office once in the country. If you’re from Australia, New Zealand or the US, you’ll get a 90 day temporary visitor visa. Visitors to Japan are required by law to have proof of onward travel, although it’s rare that you’ll actually be asked to show this. It’s best to have it to hand anyway, just to be safe.
If you want to work in Japan, you’ll need to arrange a work visa. Your employee should sponsor this for you and help you with the arrangements. There are also working holiday visas available for citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Taiwan and Hong Kong. To qualify, you need to be between 18 and 30 years old and have a minimum of 2000 USD in funds. This visa allows you to enter into part time or full time employment for up to one year. The working holiday visa is generally considered simpler to apply for than the standard work visa.
For most people travelling to Japan, Tokyo will be their first stop. Narita International Airport, which is actually located 66 km from central Tokyo, handles the majority of international flights, although in 2010 a new international terminal opened at Haneda Airport, which is a more convenient 14 km from Tokyo Station. A relatively small yet very modern airport, I found Haneda made a pleasant contrast to the stress of other airports such as Heathrow, and I’d definitely recommend passing through here if you have the chance.
Of course, there are other international airports in Japan and you don’t necessarily have to fly into Tokyo. If you’re planning to concentrate your travelling around Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara, Kansai International Airport could be an option worth considering. Additionally, the southern island of Kyushu is home to Fukuoka International Airport, whilst Naha Airport serves the southern islands of Okinawa.
The costs of flights vary depending on the airline and the season. Generally, direct flights will be more expensive than those involving stopovers. The peak times to travel to Japan are over the Christmas and New Year break in late December, and during Golden Week – a week of public holidays from late April until early May, when it seems as though everyone in the country is on the move.
If you’ve got some spare time on your hands, and don’t suffer from seasickness, it’s possible to travel to Japan by ferry from Russia, China and South Korea. This can be cheaper than flying, although certain routes take up to 48 hours. For the particularly adventurous, there’s also the option of travelling overland on the Trans-Siberian Railway, before finally crossing to Japan by ferry.
Japanis renowned for its efficient rail services, and if you’re travelling here on a standard tourist visa, trains are definitely the most convenient way to get around. Rail transport in Japan is run by six main companies that are collectively known as Japan Rail. There are several types of train available. For long journeys, you can take an overnight sleeper train and wake up at your destination the following morning. There’s also an extensive network of local trains, which can be slow but will take you to most decent-sized towns across the country. And finally, there’s the world-famous shinkansen, or bullet train, which can reach speeds of 300 km/h.
Individual train fares in Japan are usually expensive – but fear not, for those on a tourist visa there’s the option of the wonderful Japan Rail Pass. My employment visa unfortunately doesn’t allow me to use the JR Pass, so I’m incredibly jealous of everyone who gets one! The JR Pass allows unlimited travel on most JR services, including the shinkansen. You can buy a pass that’s valid for seven, 14 or 21 days, and if you intend to take any long train journeys, it’ll probably save you a lot of money. The main thing to be aware of is that you can only buy the JR Pass outside of Japan, so it’s something you’ll need to organise in advance. Most good travel agencies will be able to help you with this. For more information on train times and fares in Japan, check out www.hyperdia.com/en.
If you’re on a tighter budget, or like me don’t qualify for the JR Pass, your next best option is to use buses. There are long distance bus services available between most major destinations, and this is how I tend to get around. Take note, however, that although cheaper than the shinkansen, long distance bus fares are by no means dirt cheap – a bus from Tokyo to Kyoto can still end up costing you around 8000 yen. Travelling by night bus can be a handy way to save on accommodation, and they’re fairly comfortable, particularly if you pay a little extra for the more luxurious services (although don’t expect to sleep like a baby). They usually depart at around 10 pm, and arrive at 6 or 7 am the next day.
Hiring a car is another good option, particularly if you’re travelling in a group so can split the costs. Unlike in many other Asian countries, driving in Japan is reasonably civilised (although watch out for elderly drivers who can barely see over the dashboard – I’ve had a few close shaves!). Cars here are driven on the left, which is great for us Brits; not so great for Americans though, so be careful. Getting around, even without a GPS, is relatively simple as most major signs and exits are written in roman letters as well as Japanese. Trust me – I’m a terrible navigator yet thus far I’ve managed to (eventually) arrive at every destination I’ve been aiming for. You can buy road maps in convenience stores, although place names will be in Japanese. Google Maps is also handy for planning journeys, although annoyingly place names are again written in kanji (the Chinese characters).
There are two types of car available in Japan: yellow-plated kei cars that are small and cheap to run, and white-plated cars that are larger and much more powerful. The most basic kei cars will cost from around 7000 yen per day to hire. There are rental companies across Japan, although you probably won’t get service in English. For travellers hoping to get off the beaten track, hiring a car definitely makes sense. It will provide a lot of freedom and allow you to visit very rural areas not served by trains (such as my lovely little town!). Driving in big cities can be stressful and expensive, but if you want to take your time to see a quieter side of Japan overlooked by most tourists, a car is your best bet.
There are airports across Japan, and taking an internal flight can be quicker and not that much more expensive than taking the shinkansen. Flying is often the most efficient way to travel between Japan’s four main islands to many of the smaller ones. Two major airlines providing domestic flights are All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL). Tickets can be booked online, and conveniently both companies have websites in English.
There are countless matsuri (festivals) held across Japan. Even my town of 7000 people has its own summer festival, complete with dancers, elaborately decorated floats and food stalls. It’s well worth planning your trip to coincide with a matsuri, as they are often visually impressive, colourful and entertaining. Here’s just a small selection to get you started:
Shougatsu – from the end of December to early January, people across Japan celebrate the New Year. It’s one of the country’s most important festivals. On New Year’s Eve, people gather at Buddhist temples and pray as priests ring the temple bells 108 times. Somewhat tamer and more reflective than your typical New Year’s Eve back in the UK.
SapporoSnow Festival – for one week in February, the chilly capital of Hokkaido hosts this world-famous festival. An area of 1.5 km is transformed into an impressive display of snow and ice sculptures. This is the perfect opportunity to see a matsuri and also fit in some top-quality skiing or snowboarding.
OkayamaNaked Man Festival – also in February, this is one of Japan’s stranger celebrations. It involves up to 9000 nearly-naked men fighting over a pair of lucky sticks, whilst being splashed with water by people in the crowd. Yes, you did read that correctly. The sticks are said to bring a year of happiness, so it’s no wonder the men are so desperate to grab hold of them. Unfortunately I’ve not yet attended this, but I’ve heard good things and it’s high up on my ‘to do’ list … for totally innocent reasons of course. ;-)
Hina Matsuri – held between March and April, this is another Japan-wide festival, during which families with daughters decorate their houses with displays of special hina ningyo dolls dressed in the style of the old Imperial court. Some people open up their homes to the public during this time, so if you’re lucky you might get the chance to see a traditional side to life in Japan that many tourists don’t experience.
Hanami – not a festival as such, but a very important event in the Japanese calendar nonetheless. Hanami literally means ‘flower viewing’, and this is the time of year when Japan is at its most beautiful – cherry trees across the country burst into pink bloom, and people gather to eat picnics and get drunk beneath the sakura (cherry blossoms). It makes for a very relaxing day! The hanami season generally starts at the end of February in the south, and peaks in the north in April. Such is the national obsession with sakura that newspapers include forecasts of when the trees are predicted to bloom.
Hakata Dontaku Festival – this is one of Japan’s largest festivals, and attracts up to two million visitors over two-day period at the beginning of May. The streets of Fukuoka City in Kyushu come alive with a huge parade of floats, dancers and musicians. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a longer parade in my life – it’s definitely an impressive sight.
Golden Week – a period of four public holidays from the end of April, you should take note of Golden Week as this is one of Japan’s busiest times. Transport and accommodation is often fully booked, so it’s necessary to make reservations well in advance if you intend to travel during this period. A lot of matsuri coincide with Golden Week, so wherever you happen to be in Japan, it’s worth checking to see if there are any festivals going on nearby.
Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri – one of the northern Tohoku region’s major festivals, Hanagasa sees around 10,000 dancers making their way through the streets of Yamagata City in August, performing a unique dance involving straw hats decorated with red flowers. There’s also the usual parade of floats, lots of interesting festival food, and music. And of course it gives you an excuse to visit the beautiful prefecture of Yamagata, which is sadly overlooked by most foreign tourists to Japan.
The ancient capital is where you’re most likely to discover the Japan of your imagination. Kyoto is actually a bustling city, so when you first arrive you may well be disappointed by the usual modern buildings and big department stores. However, take the time to explore just a little, and you’ll find winding cobbled alleyways lined with intimate restaurants, small temples tucked between nondescript office blocks, and catch glimpses of peaceful gardens in what may at first seem to be a totally urban area.
Kyotois home to many of Japan’s major sights, and you can easily spend a week here and still not see a fraction of what it has to offer. You can take your pick of temples and Zen gardens; it’s worth braving the crowds to see the gorgeous Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) and the lovely gardens at Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), but part of Kyoto’s charm is just wandering about and being surprised at what you may stumble across.
It’s in Kyoto that you’re most likely to come across geisha or the apprentice maiko, who still entertain their clients behind doors that are closed to the majority of visitors. Head to the Gion district and try to catch a glimpse of them through the windows of the old teahouses lining the river.
There’s also plentiful shopping, making Kyoto the perfect place to pick up some traditional Japanese gifts to take home. There are two large flea markets that are well worth a visit, falling on the 21st and 25th of each month. Held in sprawling temple grounds, you can find some real bargains here – used kimonos sell for as little as 1000 yen, and there are plenty of antiques and other crafts on offer, as well as numerous food stalls. I found these flea markets to be particularly interesting as it’s not typical to barter for goods in Japan, but here all the usual rules of politeness seemed to go out the window as people rooted through boxes and tried to knock the price down.
Kyotois at its most beautiful during the cherry blossom season in spring, and also in November when the trees change to fiery autumnal colours. Of course, these are the times when it’s also at its busiest, and you will need to book accommodation well in advance if you hope to visit during this period. Over 30 million tourists come to Kyoto every year, but even so, it’s still possible to escape the crowds and find some time for quiet contemplation. Don’t let the huge number of people put you off, either – there is a reason why everyone heads to Kyoto, and it’s definitely worth adding it to your itinerary, too.
I studied History at university, so naturally Hiroshima and Nagasaki were on my list of must-see places in Japan. However, even if you’re not that into history, they are important locations that shaped not only modern Japan, but also affected the entire world’s perspective on nuclear weapons. It was on 6 August 1945 that the first ever nuclear bomb was dropped on the port town of Hiroshima, eventually killing well over 150,000 people. A few days later, on 9 August, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The bombings brought an official end to the long Pacific War, although the justification for them is still subject to intense debate.
With a JR Pass, it’s easy to get between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to follow the full tragic story. Start in Hiroshima, where you can visit the detailed Peace Memorial Museum and find out about the events leading up to the eventual bombing. Be prepared for some disturbing exhibits, in particular the tattered school uniform of children who died in the blast. There’s also a Peace Memorial Hall, where you can quietly reflect on what you’ve seen. The museum and hall are set in a large and well-maintained park with many sculptures and monuments, plus what has become the most iconic symbol of the bombing – the A-bomb dome, the ruins of the only building near the bomb’s hypocentre to remain standing. It’s a particularly chilling sight when it’s floodlit at night.
Although Hiroshima is now synonymous with the atomic bombing, it’s also a thriving modern city. Whilst you’re here it’s worth sampling Hiroshima’s version of okonomiyaki, a famous pancake-like dish served across Japan, but in Hiroshima given the added twist of noodles. Most visitors also head to the nearby island of Miyajima – you may be familiar with the image of the famous red torii (shrine gates) which at high tide appear to be floating in the sea. Miyajima is a good day trip, with a number of temples, some decent walks, and lots of tame deer wandering around hoping to be fed.
Nagasakiis located on the southern island of Kyushu, and so has quite a tropical climate. I loved it here – there is far more to it than just the bomb memorials, although of course you do need to see them. Like in Hiroshima, there’s a decent museum explaining the bombing, a peace memorial, and a peace park with lots of sculptures and beautiful flowers. Nagasaki is also a really nice city to wander around – there are lots of temples, gardens and an interesting Chinatown area. I thought it had a very laid-back vibe, and enjoyed spending a few days exploring here.
The Tohoku region
The Tohoku region is in the northeast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. It consists of six prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima. Most travellers tend to overlook Tohoku in favour of more famous sights further south, which is a real shame because this area has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty and the chance to experience a slower and more traditional side to life in Japan. If you head to Tohoku during the summer, you’ll be able to catch some of its most important matsuri: the famous Nebuta festival in Aomori consists of a procession of large coloured floats lit from within by hundreds of bulbs; Sendai’s Tanabata festival is symbolised by beautiful paper decorations strung from bamboo poles; and the world’s largest drum parade can be seen at Iwate’s Sansa Odori.
In Aomori prefecture there are the Hakkoda mountains, a volcanic range popular with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, who come for its thick powder. More remote is Mount Osore, or ‘Fear Mountain’, said to mark the entrance to hell: it’s hardly surprising that it got this name, with a volcanic landscape and bubbling sulphurous pools. Psychics claim to be able to summon the souls of the dead during a five day festival held from mid-July. Aomori is a destination that really requires a car in order to appreciate it fully – there are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track here.
Akitaboasts an impressive cluster of natural onsen in the hot spring resort of Nyuto – the water is milky and said to be good for the skin. Whether or not this is true, this is a truly lovely place to come for a soak; the thatched buildings are very old and picturesque, and there are some outdoor pools perfect for relaxing whilst taking in the surrounding scenery. These onsen are also a short drive from Tazawa-ko, Japan’s deepest lake: a ride on the large swan-shaped pedal boats is a pleasant, if slightly tacky, way to spend half an hour. It’s also worth visiting Kakunodate, an old town of preserved samurai houses that you are able to wander in and out of. My favourite was the Aoyagi Samurai Manor Museum, a treasure trove of eclectic items including an armory complete with samurai outfits.
Iwate prefecture is home to the unfortunately-named wanko soba. Soba is a type of buckwheat noodle found throughout Japan; however, only in Iwate has the consumption of it changed from a relaxing meal into a bit of a messy game. Head to any soba restaurant in the capital, Morioka, and you’ll be presented with an apron to put on – giving you some idea of what is to come. You’ll then have an empty bowl placed in front of you. A waitress will stand above you brandishing a tray laden with lots of smaller bowls each containing a bitesize serving of soba. She will proceed to tip one mouthful at a time into your empty bowl. Your job is to eat it. Easy enough, you might think. However, your waitress will not stop adding to your bowl, even when you get full. The only way to stop her is to try and cover it with the lid, but you can only do this once your bowl is empty … and once your bowl is empty, your waitress will be busy trying to slip another serving inside. If you’re eating wanko soba with friends, it can turn into quite a competitive race to see how many bowls you can force down. I managed 100 bowls, possibly one of my proudest achievements ever.
Miyagi prefecture is now unfortunately best known for the devastating tsunami that destroyed so much of its coastline and killed so many of its inhabitants. One of its most famous sights is Matsushima, a group of over 260 small tree-covered islands said to be one of Japan’s three best views. Some of these islands are little more than rocks with some trees on top, but they do make for a nice view and there are also a number of important temples in the area. I visited Matsushima before the tsunami, but surprisingly it suffered little damage during the disaster and continues to thrive as a tourist destination.
Yamagatameans ‘mountain shaped’, and if you come here you’ll understand why it got this name. In Yamagata you’ll find the Dewa Sanzan – three sacred mountains said to represent birth, death and rebirth. An ancient pilgrimage site, the mountains make for a challenging two-day hike … just make sure you tackle them in such a way as to avoid ending on death! There’s also some good skiing and snowboarding opportunities here, notably at the resort of Mount Zao. Zao is also famous for its ‘snow monsters’ – large frozen trees whipped into hunched and terrifying shapes, most impressive when floodlit at night.
Most people will immediately think of the recent nuclear disaster upon hearing the name Fukushima, but in the rest of the prefecture outside of the evacuation zone, life goes on as usual. Of course, tourists aren’t exactly flooding here at the moment, but most areas are safe to visit – and if you intend to travel further north than Fukushima, there’s a chance your train will pass through this prefecture anyway, so you might as well take the opportunity to do some exploring. If you fancy some outdoor activities, the Bandai Plateau has plenty of scope for hiking and mountain climbing. In 1888, Bandai-san volcano erupted, with its lava creating over 100 different ponds and lakes, which dramatically change colour depending on the light.
If watching the sun rise whilst standing on Japan’s highest point is something that takes your fancy, you should climb Mount Fuji, Japan’s most iconic mountain. However, although it may seem that everyone who travels to Japan does Fuji, do bear in mind that it’s still a serious mountain, standing at 3776m, and altitude sickness is a real possibility. It’s therefore important to be well prepared, and to pace yourself in order to give your body the chance to adjust to being at such a height.
Most people who climb Fuji don’t start at the bottom, but at the fifth station – this is where I started, and to be honest I don’t know why you’d want to tire yourself out any more than necessary by starting lower! The usual thing to do is to begin climbing in the evening, possibly stopping for a rest at one of the mountain huts on the way up, and reaching the summit in time for dawn. Physically, Fuji isn’t a very challenging mountain – so many people do the climb that the path is well-marked, and where it’s very steep there are usually steps cut into the rock to help you get up. There are ten stations up the mountain, with huts where you can buy food and drink, use the toilet (for a small fee), and sleep in communal rooms. If you do suffer from altitude sickness, you can even buy oxygen at these huts, although I don’t know how effective this is.
My friends and I started climbing at 6 pm, and we took plenty of rests as some of us felt quite light-headed from the start. I do think that going at a slow pace is the most sensible thing to do – there’s no point in rushing up and making yourself ill, plus once you’re at the summit you’ll just be hanging around in the cold waiting for the sunrise, so it isn’t really beneficial to get there much before dawn. Although not overly physically challenging, Fuji is mentally challenging as the walk is fairly monotonous and if you do the climb through the night, you’ll reach a point where all you want to do is sleep and yet you need to force yourself to keep going. I’m by no means very fit, however, and yet I managed it without too much trouble – so it is doable. Make sure that you’re stocked up with plenty of water, high-energy snacks, lots of clothes to put on in layers, and decent walking boots (don’t attempt it in trainers).
It’s important that you only climb during the official season, which starts at the beginning of July until the end of August. Outside of this time, it can be dangerous due to very low temperatures or snow. Because the official climbing season is during such a short window, every day during this period there will be thousands of other people making the climb with you. At points, you’ll probably find yourself queuing to get up the mountainside. If you’re looking for tranquility and a sense of oneness with nature, Fuji is the wrong mountain for you (there are plenty of others to choose from). But if you fancy a challenge and being able to say that you’ve touched the roof of Japan, you should consider giving Fuji a go. Although tiring, I do think it’s worth it … although bear in mind the old advice: ‘one who never climbs Mount Fuji is a fool; one who climbs it twice is twice the fool’!
Visiting an onsen is one of the top pastimes for many Japanese, and something that every visitor should experience. Onsen translates as ‘hot spring’, and you can find them all over the country. They come in many shapes and sizes, from modern spa-like facilities with a variety of different baths to choose from, to natural sulphurous pools bubbling up amongst the rocks on the side of a mountain. Bathing in an onsen is a very relaxing way to pass a couple of hours.
However, please take note: in the majority of onsen, you’re required to bathe naked. Yes, you did read that correctly. This is obviously a bit off-putting for a lot of people, and indeed was not something I ever envisaged myself doing. But, I now consider myself to be a bit of an onsen obsessive, and it’s actually one of my favourite things to do in Japan. If I can get over the initial awkwardness, anyone can.
Luckily, the majority of onsen are single sex. There are some mixed sex baths, but they are few and far between, and generally require some sort of bathing attire (whether this is to be considered a plus or a minus is up to you!). There is a bit of etiquette involved in using an onsen, but as long as you stick to a few rules, you can’t go wrong.
The main thing to be aware of is that onsen are used for relaxing, not washing. This means that you can only enter the bath once you’re already clean. Most will have an area outside of the actual onsen in which you strip off and leave your clothes and other belongings in a basket or locker. Huddling in a corner and trying to cover various body parts whilst undressing will make you more conspicuous, so you just have to go for it. You then step through to the main room, which will contain the onsen itself and some showers.
Before bathing, make sure you take a shower. The showers are usually quite low, with little plastic stools placed in front of them. Rinse off the stool before sitting down. There should be soap and shampoo provided, and you’re expected to use it – a quick spray with just water will not go down well with your fellow bathers! There will often be plastic bowls available as well, which you can use to pour water over your body. Again, although you may feel self-conscious washing yourself in the presence of strangers, most people really aren’t interested anyone else and are too busy getting on with their own ablutions to pay attention to what you’re doing.
After you’ve finished showering, rinse off your stool again and make sure you’ve got rid of any traces of soap or shampoo. Now comes the best bit: you’re ready to get into the bath. It’s not a swimming pool, so try not to splash people. The whole point of using an onsen is to sit back and let the hot water wash away all your aches and pains. Be warned, some can be seriously hot and it can be a bit of a shock if you’re not expecting it – always dip your foot in first before submerging the rest of your body!
Once in the water, you can stay for as long as you like, although you might become a bit light-headed, in which case get out for a while and sit on the side. You can also become dehydrated if you are in for a long time; some more modern onsen will provide drinking fountains, but it’s always sensible to take a bottle of water with you and leave it in the changing area. Also make sure that you don’t put your head fully under the water – this is something that’s frowned upon, so if you have long hair it’s probably a good idea to tie it back and try not to get it wet in the bath.
One final thing: if you’re covered with tattoos, there’s a chance you won’t be allowed to bathe. This is because tattoos are often associated with the yakuza – Japan’s very own mafia. Many onsen owners don’t want mafia gang members coming along and scaring away their other customers, so there’s often a blanket ban on people who have tattoos of any sort. This can seem a bit excessive, especially if you quite clearly aren’t in the yakuza (which of course most tourists aren’t!). If your tattoo is relatively small, you may be able to get away with covering it with a skin-coloured plaster. Sometimes it won’t even be an issue, but just be aware that if a staff member sees you and decides to enforce the rules, you might get asked to leave.
This may sound quite complicated for what could be seen as just a glorified bath, but visiting an onsen is actually very simple and incredibly enjoyable. Once you’ve been to your first, you’ll probably begin understand why so many Japanese love them, and you may even spend the rest of your trip searching for good onsen rather than sightseeing!
Although so much of the country is mountainous, before I came to Japan I had no idea that it is a brilliant destination for winter sports. Chances are, unless you’re from Australia or New Zealand, you probably aren’t aware of this either. Despite hosting the Winter Olympics not just once, but twice, Japan seems to be off the radar as a skiing and snowboarding destination for most travellers. This is a real shame as there are some world-class slopes out there. The most popular areas for winter sports are the Japan Alps in central Japan, and the island of Hokkaido up in the north.
If you find yourself in Japan in the middle of winter and fancy doing something a bit different, consider having a go at some sort of winter sport. If you’ve got the JR Pass, many resorts in the Japan Alps are just a couple of hours by train from Tokyo. There are resorts to suit all levels and budgets. The larger and more famous, such as Hakuba in Nagano prefecture, can cost from around 5000 yen for a one day lift pass, but there are also lots of less flashy and cheaper places. Even my little town has its own slope – there’s only one chairlift and about three runs in total, but it’s a bargain at 1000 yen for half a day of skiing.
You can hire (or buy) equipment at most resorts, although obviously it’s much cheaper if you take your own stuff with you. At the bigger resorts, there are plenty of hotels and restaurants around, and you can often get instruction in English if required. Although a bit expensive, I splurged on a snowboarding lesson whilst in Hakuba, and have now perfected the art of getting off a chairlift without falling over and dragging my friend with me … in her opinion, this was money well spent!
If you want to spend a year or so living in Japan whilst getting paid at the same time, teaching English is the easiest and most common route for the majority of foreigners. In general, the only requirements are that you’re a native speaker of English and you hold a degree (the subject doesn’t usually matter). A quick search online reveals numerous companies requiring native English speakers to come and work in schools, so if this is something you fancy, there is a lot of choice out there.
In many cases, your role in Japan will not be that of a full English teacher, but rather an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). This means that rather than being given responsibility for your own classes, you will instead be working alongside a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE). Responsibilities vary between schools, but often JTEs will be in charge of planning the lessons, and the ALT will be there to help them implement these plans and to encourage students to communicate in English.
One of the most well-known and respected ways to come and teach in Japan is through the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme. JET is a government-funded scheme that every year sends several thousand graduates from around the world to work as ALTs in public schools. In total, there are currently around 5000 JET participants across Japan. I’ve been on the JET Programme since August 2010, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to not only travel extensively and learn more about Japanese culture, but also to experience day-to-day life in a small rural town, which is something that most tourists don’t see. The following information is about applying for JET simply because this is what I am most qualified to give advice on. There are of course other ways to get to Japan, so don’t feel that it must be JET or nothing. In fact, if you’re itching to get away as soon as possible, JET may not be your best route, and you should take the time to research different options.
The application process for JET is very long and involves a lot of paperwork, so it’s important to start planning for this as early as you can in order to get everything together. Every year, applications open in October and you have about one month to send in all that is required: a personal statement explaining your reasons for wanting to participate on JET and what you think you can bring to the programme; two letters of reference (preferably one academic and one from an employer); a doctor’s note to confirm that you are fit to spend a year in Japan; a university transcript or proof that by the following August you’ll have finished your degree; and a print out of a detailed form downloaded from the JET website. Oh, and you need to provide an extra three copies of everything except for your references. Sounds like a lot of work? It is – which is why it’s not a good idea to leave it all to the last minute. Every year, potential applicants are disqualified at this early stage for making simple mistakes such as forgetting to enclose a certain item of paperwork. Don’t be that person!
Once you’ve handed everything in, the waiting game begins. The first bit of waiting is to find out if you’ve actually made it to the interview stage. Interviews are held over several weeks from early February. In the UK, you can choose to be interviewed in either London or Edinburgh. The interview itself is short, lasting only about fifteen minutes, and is in front of a panel of two or three people. Expect them to grill you on your reasons for wanting to go to Japan over any other country, how you think you’ll cope living in a place where you may not easily be able to communicate with people, and why you think you’ll make a good ambassador to teach Japanese students about your own culture. There are a number of online forums dedicated to all things JET, so it’s worth checking them out for interview tips and example questions.
After you’ve had your interview, you then wait until April to find out the outcome. There are three possibilities: you can be rejected outright, get a place on the shortlist straight away, or be selected as an alternate and have even more waiting ahead to see if you eventually get promoted to the final shortlist. Even once you find out that you have a place, you still have to wait until about June to find out whereabouts in Japan you will be sent. At the initial application stage, you do have the option of listing three placement preferences – how far these are taken into consideration is subject to endless debate. A lot of JET placements are in rural areas, so don’t be surprised if, like me, you end up as the only ALT in a small countryside town or village. If this isn’t something you think you’d like, it would be a good plan to look at alternatives to JET, which may give you more of a choice regarding location.
Finally, you know your placement, you’ve filled in even more paperwork to confirm that you want to go, you’ve been to your in-country orientation, and you’re ready to head to Japan. Your flight is paid for by JET, and provided you complete your year-long contract, your flight home is also covered, a perk that many JET alternatives don’t offer. Once in Japan, you’ll first spend a couple of days at the official Tokyo Orientation, being bombarded with information and yet more paperwork when all you want to do is sleep, before making the journey to your new home with the other new JETs who’ll be living in your area. Then the real fun begins!
Applying for JET is a long and time-consuming process, requiring a lot of stamina and jumping through hoops. However, the amazing experiences you’ll get from a year living in Japan make it worth putting yourself through all of this. I’ve met so many new people during my time on JET, not just from Japan but from countries around the world. I’ve made friends I know I’ll keep in touch with for years to come. I’ve climbed mountains, stayed in a monastery, discovered the pleasures of onsen, eaten 100 bowls of noodles in one sitting, sung karaoke, and become good friends with a Japanese couple in their 80s who love to give me lots of food and plum wine. When I think of what I’d probably be doing had I not come to Japan, I’m so glad that I decided to apply for JET rather than just your average graduate scheme. I probably won’t end up becoming a teacher. I’m not going to live in Japan forever. One day, I’m sure I’ll have to come home and get a ‘proper’ job. But for now, my life is in Japan and I’m determined to make the most of it. If you also like the sound of this, just give it a go – you never know what will happen until you try!
Japan is seen as an expensive destination, but if you buy the JR Pass before you arrive, that’s already a massive saving if you are intending to do more than a couple of train journeys. Transport is by far the biggest expense, which is why if you are unable to qualify for the JR Pass it’s probably best to take buses rather than trains to get around.
Accommodation is also quite pricey in comparison to other popular Asian destinations. However, dorm rooms in hostels are usually the cheapest option, at around 2500 yen per night. Taking an overnight bus will save a night on accommodation, although you might not get the best sleep in the world. The trouble with night buses is that they tend to arrive very early in the morning before most places have opened. If you find yourself in this situation, a good idea is to find the nearest internet and manga café – these are usually open twenty four hours, and are perfect if you want a nap. You can pay for a private booth, in which you’ll find a comfy reclining chair and a computer – so you can surf the internet and then lie back and relax. Unlimited soft drinks are provided, and in many cases there are even showers available for an additional fee. If you’re feeling hardcore, you could even choose a manga café over a hostel for the night. Couchsurfing is another option – there are lots of couches available across Japan, and this can be a good way to meet some locals.
Eating in Japan is as cheap or as expensive as you make it. If you’re truly on a tight budget, the numerous combinis (convenience stores) dotted around will be your lifesaver. Here, you can buy very cheap snacks such as onigiri (stuffed rice balls), sandwiches and pot noodles, as well as drinks and sweets. However, I find that after a couple of meals of combini food I end up feeling a bit bloated and ill (it’s not high quality stuff!), so it’s best to intersperse cheap snacks with at least a couple of filling meals. There are lots of cheap chain restaurants around, although in more rural locations you might have a bit more difficulty finding them. As long as you aren’t fussy about eating gourmet food everyday, you should be able to get by on a couple of thousand yen a day.
Sightseeing costs can add up, particularly in popular locations such as Kyoto. Many of the major temples and other sights require an entrance fee, which although often only a couple of hundred yen, over the course of a trip this can end up being expensive. Unfortunately there isn’t really any way to get around this: there will occasionally be discounts for students and senior citizens, so if you fall into these categories you can try your luck, but don’t be surprised if you are told that everyone has to pay the same price. If you’re really on a budget then your only option is really to limit the places that you visit, but I think it’s a shame to miss out on the sights and would recommend that you try to make savings elsewhere in order to be able to visit as many places as you can.
The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis
On 11 March 2011, a huge earthquake off the coast of eastern Tohoku caused a massive tsunami that devastated much of the coastline, wiping away towns and villages and killing thousands of people. As it sits on the ‘Ring of Fire’, Japan is a country prone to earthquakes, getting several thousand every year – but most of them are so small that they are not even noticeable. This earthquake measured 9 on Japan’s scale: its largest ever. This was an unprecedented tragedy, and left the entire country (and the world) in shock.
The news quickly shifted to the growing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daichi power plant, which had been damaged in the tsunami and was going into meltdown. Media across the world gave enormous coverage to what was described as the ‘new Chernobyl’, and towns around the plant were evacuated and became no-go zones.
I was at my school in Yamagata when the earthquake struck. I’d never experienced an earthquake before, so this was a very strange sensation: the entire building felt like it was rolling, the lights flickered on and off, and books fell from the shelves. Luckily, although Yamagata borders the prefectures of Fukushima and Miyagi, which were two of the worst affected, it’s on the west coast of Japan and so escaped the devastation of the subsequent tsunami. It was really shocking to watch the news and see horrendous scenes that were taking place just a couple of hours from where I live. Although we escaped the tsunami, the following weeks were incredibly tense as no one really knew what was going on in Fukushima. Being relatively close to the power plant was quite stressful, and a number of fellow JETs left Japan for a while, with some not coming back.
However, life in most of the country is now back to normal. Of course, the very damaged areas on the coast will take years to clear and rebuild, and there are still thousands of people unable to return home, living in school gymnasiums and other shelters across the region. This is a massive tragedy for Japan … but it doesn’t mean that you should avoid travelling here. The most popular areas for travellers (such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka) are much further south and on the whole were unaffected by the events of March. Even in Tohoku, everywhere outside of the evacuation zone is safe to visit. Understandably, visitor numbers dropped dramatically in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami; the worry is that they will not increase again. I have been living and travelling in Tohoku quite happily since 11 March. This is an area that doesn’t normally feature high up on the itinerary of most travellers, despite a wealth of things to do and see; now, more than ever, it is desperate for tourism – and what better way to show your solidarity with the people of Japan than coming here?
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