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Japan: A Travel Guide

Article | February 4th, 2021 | Lukas Leiffer
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It’s safe to say we’ve all had a tough year. Our mundane lives became blander with the onset of COVID, forcing us to spend time indoors, always filled with anxiety, and our social lives got substituted for more work, affecting our mental health. You’ve had to adjust to this new life, but now is the time for a break. Now is the time to get away from the commotion of life and regain your bearings. It’s time to travel (but be safe).

Traveling is the best way to destress, unwind and relax. Every single person who travels always tells me the same thing, “It’s a worthy investment because the experience and memories stay with you forever.” I didn’t believe it until I tried it, and now, every time I look back on my travels, I find that my experiences changed me as a person and help me grow.

Perhaps the most life-changing experience I had was in Japan. No other place in the world shows you the right mix of modernity and tradition. In my opinion, everyone should visit Japan at least once in their life, but navigating a country so alien can be challenging. That’s why I’ve compiled a travel guide.

WHY JAPAN?


You may have heard of Japan’s isolation from the world in the Edo period from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. Perhaps this is one reason for Japan’s uniqueness and preserved culture that makes it so different from the rest of the world.

Japan’s cultural exports like cuisine, technology, and entertainment give us a sneak peek into the kind of environment we can expect if we go there. It may seem a bit unorthodox, but that is what makes it beloved by many. Japan’s isolation led to the development of Japanese culture free from external influence.

While the world was busy expanding, the island of Japan nurtured many philosophies like Wa, Honne and Tatemae, Kaizen, and Bushido. These tenets focus on positive societal behavior characteristics for the greater common good rather than oneself. They translate into their daily lives, explaining the honest, honorable, and peaceful nature of Japanese people and the low crime statistics.

Modern Japan is very populous. Had Japanese people’s mindset been different, Japan would’ve been very challenging to travel to as interacting with people is a significant part of traveling. Any bad experiences from the locals can influence your experience when traveling. This is the best reason to travel to Japan.

GEOGRAPHY


Other than its people, Japan has more to offer. The land itself is breathtaking with its mountainous regions, hot springs, and cherry blossoms.

Japan is a group of islands, an archipelago, off the coast of the Asian continent, situated where tectonic plates meet. This gives rise to volcanic activity and explains its mountainous terrain like the Japanese Alps and its hot springs.

More than 50% of Japan is forested, fed by the major rivers Biwa, Ina Washiro, and Kasumigaura, blessing the land with unique flora like the Sakura, Katsura, Momiji, and Azalea. The vast forests and the special place of animals in Japanese folklore provides a unique ecosystem for fauna to thrive. Some are endemic to Japan, such as the Macaque monkeys, the Japanese red fox, and the Shiba Inu. Additionally, some areas host many feral animals like cats, rabbits, and deer found at Tashirojima Island, Okunoshima Island, and Miyajima, respectively.

CUISINE


You may have tried sushi wherever you live, but wait till you see what kind of cuisine awaits you in Japan. Wherever you go, whether it is street food or high-end restaurants, food is an experience in Japan.

Japan doesn’t have much farmland, but that hasn’t stopped them from looking for other food sources. The people of Japan have to rely heavily on the sea for sustenance. This need has made Japan the world’s largest aquaculture society with its advanced merchant marine fleet, offshore ocean platforms, and fish farms. Hence, you’ll find many dishes based on seafood like the Sushi, Buri Daikon, Katsuo-no-Tataki, Miso-zuke Salmon, and Tecchiri (Fugu Nabe).

If seafood’s not to your liking, don’t worry. You can enjoy the comfort of Omurice in many Japanese diners, try a plethora of different Ramen flavors available at many restaurants and wending machines, or lose yourself in the variety of street food throughout Tokyo, Okinawa, and Osaka.


TRANSPORTATION


Post World War Two, Japan saw an exponential rise in technology and economy. Currently, Japan is one of the world’s largest economies, enabling it to build the world’s best transportation system.

A big part of traveling is figuring out transportation. Luckily Japan has an extensive rail network known for its reliability and punctuality. It covers all the rural and urban centers of the country. Additionally, local tracks in metropolitan areas make traveling easier within the major cities, and the Shinkansen bullet train network makes long-distance travel convenient.

The fare depends on the distance traveled. You can purchase paper tickets at train stations, RFID cards, or take advantage of the rail passes.

The paper tickets and RFID cards are dispensed by several ticket machines throughout stations, with the RFID cards providing more convenience when traveling. They only need to be swiped on entrance and exit machines for access to platforms and can be recharged quickly with ticket machines. On the other hand, the ticket requires repurchase as exit machines eat it up when leaving a platform.

The best option for tourists is perhaps railway passes. They cover different regions and are offered by many rail companies. The ones offered by the JR Company, which runs most trains in Japan, give tourists unlimited access to ride JR trains for a few weeks, great for traveling long distances on the Shinkansen. All tourists have to do is show the pass to the station master to be let through to the platform.

ACCOMMODATION


While traveling, accommodation is one of the most significant factors determining the itinerary of your trip. Japan, like many other places, has a lot of places to stay. You can find different kinds of hotels like those you’re used to or business hotels, which are generally smaller and cheaper but charge per head. They’re usually in convenient spots in metropolitan areas and close to transportation hubs.

You can also choose to stay in capsule hotels or hostels if you’re a solo traveler, but make sure that you don’t disturb other guests. They have common areas for dining, hanging out, or working, great for interacting with other travelers. They generally have good timings for checking in and checking out as well.

You can book a Minpaku (Airbnb) or Minshuku (inn or lodge) for a more authentic Japanese accommodation. Depending on where you stay, they provide excellent facilities and feel very homely. The only difference is that Minshukus are run like a business; therefore, they are more expensive. Both are great for interacting with locals, and you’ll find plenty of these places, but make sure that they’re not in the middle of nowhere as that would make traveling more challenging.

If you can afford it, then I would highly recommend going to a Ryokan. These are more like fancy traditional Japanese inns. They’re typically located in areas with astounding scenery and hot springs. These places are great for relaxation if you plan to stay at a place for a while. They’re a bit on the pricy side, charging by the head, but provide excellent entertainment facilities like arcades and karaoke.

Generally speaking, looking for accommodation in Japan depends on your budget. Factor in the services you require like complimentary breakfast, dinner, room service, laundry, how many people are traveling with you, and looking up hotels beforehand and seeing their facilities and fees. Make sure you don’t disturb other guests wherever you’re staying and if you see raised flooring, take off your shoes before that step, and keep your passport with you at all times as hotels require foreign nationals to register themselves before checking in.

POPULAR ITINERARIES


GOLDEN ROUTE


The golden route is one of the best and most common ways to travel across Japan. The route takes you through Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, Osaka, and optionally, Hiroshima. You can make the trip both ways as both Tokyo and Osaka have international airports whereby you don’t have to make a round trip to go back. Two weeks should be enough for this route.

You can enjoy hiking at Mount Fuji and visit Hakone. Hot springs are found throughout Hakone, well accessible from cable cars and ropeways.

Two hours from Tokyo is a hidden gem called Nikko. Like Kyoto, it displays rich ancient Japanese culture. You can plan a day trip to the shrine complex by taking the Nikko line from Utsunomiya and take the Tobu bus to Nikko. The shrine complex, a UNESCO world heritage site, is home to the Futarasan and Toshogu shrines and the Rinnoji temple. It has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

Please click here for our Golden Route Tour Itineraries for 2021, 2022 & 2023:

HOKKAIDO


Hokkaido is an island situated in the northern part of Japan. It is easily accessible by the Shinkansen, but you can also take a connecting flight from Tokyo if you don’t want to travel the long distance via train.

There are many places to visit here. Noboribetsu is known for its hot springs, Otaru for its seafood, Asahikawa is home to a famous zoo, Biei is known for its forests, and Furano for its lavender flowers.

Perhaps the most famous place to visit in Hokkaido is Sapporo – Yes, where Sapporo beer comes from. You can visit the famous Sapporo Museum there, admission is free, and the first floor has a tasting hall. If you go there in the summer, you can enjoy food and beer at the Sapporo Odori beer garden festival. It’s like Oktoberfest but in Japan. You can enjoy the snow festival in the winter, where massive snow sculptures and statues are displayed.

Please click here for our Hokkaido Tour Itineraries for 2021, 2022 & 2023:

TOHOKU


Tohoku is located in the northeast region of Japan and easily accessible from the Shinkansen, taking you to its last point at the end of continental Japan, Shin Aomori, famous for its fish market and seafood.

Sendai is the biggest city in Tohoku and is ideal for travelers looking to get away from Tokyo’s hustle and bustle but still want the amenities of a big city.

The start attraction of Tohoku is the Yamadera Temple in the mountains near Yamagata city. The only way to get to this temple is by climbing over 1100 stairs. Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with a serene and beautiful view of the city below.

Please click here for our Tohoku Tour Itineraries for 2021, 2022 & 2023:

KYUSHU


To the south of Japan, you’ll find the island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is the biggest city there, and like Sendai gives the same feeling compared to Tokyo. If you come here in January, you can witness the Oniyo fire festival at the Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine in Daizenji, near Fukuoka, a ceremony going back 1600 years to ward off evil spirits. It’s a 7-day festival where hundreds of men carry torches to the shrine and light up giant 13 meter long torches.

There are many places to visit in Kyushu. You can take a Gondola ride in Yanagawa, complete with a singing Gondolier. Have Arita’s famous beer and look at traditional Japanese ceramics.

Kyushu has one of the best hot spring towns in Japan due to the presence of active volcanos. The most famous being those near Mt. Aso, which also has the Aso shrine on top of it.

While you’re there, you can visit Nagasaki, famous for its night view, Chinatown, and Champon, a type of noodle soup.

Please click here for our Tohoku Tour Itineraries for 2021, 2022 & 2023:

FINAL THOUGHTS


Traveling gives us time to think outside of our bubble. In our daily interactions, we don’t realize how diverse people are. Their geography, culture, and tradition mold them, and their opinions, perspectives, and circumstances make them unique in their own way. You’ll find a number of unusual situations and shared experiences that you might not experience back at home. How you navigate these situations will tell you more about yourself, make you learn about the world, and give you the insight and confidence to handle life’s uncertainty.


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