Picture yourself looking up Mt. Fuji, mighty volcano that you can see at 100km distance from Tokyo, rising sharply on the horizon. With the altitude of 3776m it is Japan’s tallest peak, a must-do hike for every traveller. However the country has much more to offer. With average population density 10% lower than India there is plenty of breath taking nature to explore, stunning coastline and culture like no other. It is not possible to mention everything in short article. Instead, I’ll go selectively through my experience and focus on some tips.
Punctual, safe and clean these three words would best describe what caught my attention in the very first days. On a busy city train station with well over dozen platforms serving local and long distance lines from different operators trains typically depart every minute or so during peak hours. I used Google maps most of the times for timetables and I was often amazed standing there waiting for my train to arrive, watching the clock, counting 3, 2, 1…. and the train was there.
I would sometimes be on a train late at night and I was surprised to see many pupils, often travelling on their own, still in their school uniforms. This actually told me a lot about the place I’m in – it’s safe, they feel safe, they can come back home at 11pm not afraid that any harm will happen to them. While I was there I heard a story about someone who lost his mobile phone. He considered the phone gone forever but was advised to check at local police station. It turned out someone found it and brought it right there. Yes, things like that happen very often in Japan.
Japan has plenty to offer when it comes to food. I must say portions are smaller than you would find in India or Europe and good news is there’s generally much less salt in everything you eat. If you’re first time in Japan there will be variety of things you’ve never tried. I would recommend trying Nattō at least once. It’s one of those polarizing things, you either love it or hate it. There are local varieties of different foods as well, so if you’re in Hirishima you have to try okonomyiaki and anywhere in the country try ramen, a noodle soup in fact originating from China, served in many shapes and forms. A word of advice, Japanese restaurants rarely have English menus but sometimes they would have dishes on the display. I used to take photos of those, walk in and show the staff I wanted.
Ramen restaurant display
Eating in restaurants is not cheap. Ramen would typically cost you between 500 and 1000 JPY (300 – 600INR). The budget alternative would be to buy food from grocery shops like 7eleven.
Japan has broad coverage of public transport network that’s fast and reliable. There’s fast railway network (Shinkansen) connecting major transport hubs and plenty of local trains. Google maps are your best friend when it comes to timetables and journey planning. There are plenty of buses as well as street cars in some cities but don’t rely on Google to show you correct routes and times. I found it disappointingly unreliable most of the times.
Using the trains
Trains are the fastest way to travel around Japan, however they do come as a price. The quickest way for long distance journey is Shinkansen but it is pricy. There is a way around it. One can buy up to 3 weeks unlimited pass for pretty much most of Japan Rail but it has to be purchased prior to reaching the country. Three weeks 2nd class pass is currently worth $523. This is probably not the best option for long time travellers but it’s the cheapest one if you want to see a lot in short time span.
Alternative ways to travel
There are some budget alternatives, including Carpool Japan but you may find it difficult to come across English speaking driver. Hitchhiking is also an option but it is an art on its own and requires good research and language barrier may again be an issue. Personally, I used bullet trains between big cities but then I was cycling locally, saving a lot on train and bus fares. You can often rent a bike for 500 JPY and some guest houses may include them in the price if you’re lucky. I was staying in Kamakura for some time and from there I was able to do even slightly longer trips, like Mount Fuji or Joga Island. Fuji is bit of a killer because it’s almost 100km journey but is doable in two days. However you can’t go wrong on a bike, even locally. Usually there are plenty of nearby shrines, temples parks and other things to see wherever you are.
Joga Island lighthouse
Probably one of the most valuable assets Japan has to offer are its people. Initially they seem shy and reserved but this is mainly because most of the times they’re uncomfortable with English. Try getting in any trouble though and they will do their outmost to help you. Two of my friends took wrong bus late at night (Google maps’ fault) and they ended up miles away from home. They asked Japanese lady for directions, she spoke only few words in English and eventually started running away from them. They decided to walk back roughly towards home and to their surprise few minutes later the same lady was back there with her husband in their car just to offer them free ride home. I’ve also had absolutely wonderful experience with my couchsurfing hosts in Hiroshima. They were going above and beyond to make me feel like a guest. They took me to restaurant, cooked Japanese food for me, gave me real home sushi experience and drove me to places.
While language barrier could be a problem for travellers in Japan, this certainly does not apply to situations when you need help. When I arrived at the bottom of Mt Fuji by bike late at night all shops were closed, I was hungry and wasted. There were some uniformed people around, probably working for the park. None of them spoke a word of English but when I gestured suggesting I’m looking to buy some food they shared their own with me.
View from Mount Fuji
There are many amazing things to experience and see in Japan but it is the kindness and friendly nature of Japanese people that stood out for me the most.
Featured image by Wikimedia commons