As one of the world's oldest cultures yet most modern (if not futuristic!) countries, Japan will transport you to a world you've never imagined and sometimes can barely comprehend. If you need a brief, photo-filled travel overview of the magnificent Japan, look no further.
Overview of Japan
Let's start with the map and some simple facts. Japan is an island in Asia. Knew that? You're so smart. Did you know it has 127 million people? Oh fine, you did. Then no doubt you've heard about the massive population decline...yikes. Plus it's still a quite homogenous culture so they've got to get to making babies or letting in foreigners asap.
It has 47 prefectures that are kind of like counties / municipalities, spread across 8 regions, but these don't really correspond with states or have governors or anything. That said you will see the eight regions color coded on maps, but I think that's because 47 little squiggly lines for such a thin country is just a nightmare to draw.
Important point! The currency is the yen -- yeah I know you know that. But you hear "yen" and see this symbol: ¥. Only thing is, often, you actually see this symbol on menus: 円. Learn this symbol!! Also, almost no one takes credit cards, so be prepared to just withdrawal a lot of cash and carry it around. You'll feel like a baller.
And of course, potato is called 'jagaimo.' Hokkaido (the northern prefecture where Sapporo lies) is famed for its potatoes. Plus there's a company called Calbee which you've no doubt seen in Asian supermarkets -- they make the best potato products, hands down.
I went to Tokyo, Kyoto (and Nara), Osaka, Nagasaki, and Sapporo. How were they?
- Tokyo: Fast. Expansive. Luxurious. Surprisingly quiet.
- Kyoto: Ancient. Zen. Modern. Wonderfully luscious.
- Osaka: Relaxed. Foodie. Calm. Easy living.
- Nagasaki: Sorrowful. Storied. Western. Unexpectedly tasty.
- Sapporo: New. Wild. Delicious. Effortlessly cool.
Traveling in Japan
Traveling in Japan will be one of the easiest things you will ever do. Don't speak a lick of Japanese? Don't worry, almost every transportation has English signs or an English speaking attendant nearby. Missed your train? Don't worry, there's another one promptly on-time right behind it. Lost your wallet? Someone probably turned it in. If you're worried at all, don't be - traveling in Japan isn't hard - it's ridiculously easy and safe. Almost too much so...
Here are the super basic transportation things to know:
- Bookmark japan-guide.com -- seriously, this site has anything and everything you need to know
- Get a JR Rail Pass before you go to Japan -- and get it for longer than you think you'll need it; I bought the two weeks pass but wish I had done it for three
- Get a Suica / Pasmo IC card when you arrive -- it's a wireless, interchangeable subway card that can be used on any subway throughout the country and also used as payment at vending machines inside the subway and at many stores / fairs outside!
- In Tokyo the subway does not run all night -- I know, wtf, it makes no sense and then taxis are mad expensive but capsule hotels are not so... if you go out past 11pm, be prepared to stay out until 5am, sleep at in a capsule / at a diner / on the street, or pay $60 USD for a taxi home.
Here are the super basic safety things to know:
- Avoid the yakuza
- That's all
Top Five Not-in-Every-Guide-Book-Recommendations
So you've downloaded Lonely Planet's guide to Japan. Congrats! Go to many of those places and you'll have a blast. Here are some of my suggestions for what to see and do too.
- Stay at a temple. Outside of Tokyo you can stay at Taiyoji Temple like I did, where you'll meet a lovely sensei and his four labradors, while learning a bit about meditation. Or take it up a notch and do a waterfall meditation called Takigyo at Shukubo Komadori-Sanso. I didn't get to do that unfortunately because my dates didn't align, but I met a guy who did and he could only describe it as "intense." Here's a Random Wire write up of the meditation and the surrounding Mt. Mitake.
- Find the free gardens. Japan can start to get expensive after a few hours, or weeks, in the country. So find yourself a break from the dazzling lights and damaging prices by skipping over to a park or garden. Some of favorites were:
- Osaka: Nakanoshima Rose Garden and the Utsubo Rose Garden - the photos of the above roses were taken in those parks
- Nara: Yoshikien Garden, which is free for tourists!
- Sapporo: Moerenuma Park! It's free! And designed by the Japanese American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. Plus you can rent a bike to explore for like ¥200 ($2 USD) for two hours.
- Go forest bathing. In Kyoto you can walk the Kyoto Trail! You can find this throughout the city which is pretty cool. You can read about my experience Forest Bathing in Kyoto.
- Do MariKart -- but with a friend. I did this based on a friend's recommendation, and it's not cheap if you're traveling for a long time, but cheap if you're just in Tokyo for two weeks at $50. It was fun to pal around town dressed up like Yoshi, but this activity would be the tits with friends, as opposed to my three random Korean buddies.
- Go to a gay bar. Okay maybe you need to queer for this one to be cool for you, but whoa, can you meet locals this way. And ex-pats. In Osaka I went to a place called WaaGwaan, a Jamacian themed lesbian vegan cafe bar -- I know, right? Thing is, with only six patrons, two staff and then me, the only gaijin, I was a celeb with lots of conversational buddies...who didn't actually speak much English. And the bar owner gave me lots of tips about Osaka, Japan, and the cards of other places to go visit in Tokyo.
Best Potato Spots / Dishes:
I mean, I might not have written or posted a lot of photos of potatoes, but come on, you know I ate them a lot. So here's just a small selection of potato deliciousness.
Now, let's excited!
But transportation and safety aside, I think the real allure of Japan is its ability to give you the past, present, and future in one country, all while inviting you to apply a Zen style mindfulness to each moment, each activity, each season. You must stand at the foot of Mt Fuji whose grandeur words cannot capture. You can lose yourself in Kyoto's temples or at one of Japan's numerous cultural festivals. You can learn about the dying art of woodblock printing alongside an aging master or join in the fervor of the Osaka Tigers at a baseball game. You can practice mindfulness in the temple, at the garden, or even on a roof.
The natural beauty of Japan will steal your breath, over and over and over again. In spring the whole country erupts into bloom with the welcome celebration of the cherry blossoms. Then then the roses, and azaleas, and every other kind of flower. A sweetness lingers in the air and for me, at least, drew me out of the shopping meccas and into the gardens resplendent.
And of course, the zen gardens will settle your busy mind if you find the cities too chaotic. Many temples combine rock gardens with carefully selected, placed, and pruned shrubbery, giving each garden the effect of feeling planned yet organically chaotic.
But let's be real...who doesn't think hear 'Japan' and at least think of Lost in Translation and some crazy karaoke nights and city lights?
What are your tips for Japan? Any favorites not captured here? Drop a comment! :) And don't forget to pin this for future reference.