Bullet trains, blossoms and bento boxes: The ultimate backpacker guide to Japan
So you’ve decided it’s time to visit one of the world’s most fascinating countries, Japan. Excellent news!
With its layered history and advanced modernisation, Japan is one of those places where you’d be hard pressed not to find something you were after. Whether it’s nature, culture, shopping, food, a slow pace or a fast pace, Japan has it all. Tokyo is particularly interesting because one moment you can be absorbed in the business of somewhere like Shinjuku, but just a few stops away on the train and you could find yourself in a very suburban area with a small tofu shop that has been running for 50 years. It’s not uncommon to see people wearing kimono on your daily train commute, or hear the click clack of wooden slippers as a local resident heads to the neighbourhood bath house.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
The Japanese are an extremely polite and kind people. Simply by saying ‘Konnichiwa’ (hello) or ‘Kudasai’ (please) might leave you blushing after a smothering of ‘Your Japanese is soooooo good!’ compliments.
Japanese are respectful and things are rarely stolen in Japan. It’s not uncommon to see a laptop left on a table while the owner pops to the bathroom. The only exception to this rule are umbrellas and bikes. On a rainy day, and with so many people buying identical plastic umbrellas from convenience stores, these can often go missing. Fortunately, though, Japan is extremely convenient, so a new umbrella is likely only a quick purchase away. If by chance, you happen to lose something, head to the closest police box ‘Koban’ as it has likely been turned in.
Japan is also incredibly safe making it fantastic for both solo and group travel. Allow me to share with you some insider tips I’ve picked up over the last 8 years of living in Japan.
- The Best Time to Visit Japan
- Japan Visa
- Getting around Japan
- Currency in Japan
- Japan on a Budget
- Accommodation in Japan
- Japan Itinerary
- Food in Japan
- Japanese Customs
BEST TIME TO VISIT JAPAN
First things first. Wondering when to come? Japan is definitely a four season country. The weather varies between each city, but as a general rule, and working off Tokyo, let me break down the seasons for you…
October to December are nice and cool. You can enjoy watching the changing colour of the leaves, drink hot wine, restaurants give you blankets so you can enjoy the cold air outdoors and watch the Christmas illumination lighting displays pop up over the country.
January and February are Japan’s winter coldest months with many cities covered in snow.
If you’re planning on skiing in Japan, the best months to catch Hokkaido’s powder snow are between December and February.
As March rolls around everyone is keeping a keen eye on the cherry blossom forecasts as the blossom viewing is extremely fleeting lasting only up to two weeks. If you’re planning to visit Japan during the very popular cherry blossom season, or hanami, bear in mind that travel and accommodation can be a little more expensive than usual.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
Judging simply by the temperatures of Japan’s Summer, it may appear reasonably tolerable, however it is extremely humid and unless you love a constant sweaty glow, it may not be your season of choice. Keep that in mind for any travel in the majority of Japan between June and September.
When booking your ticket to Japan, you might also like to note Japan’s main public holidays. Japan has three main large nationwide holidays, Golden Week, Silver Week and New Years Break. Check the dates which change each year and note that travel is at its most expensive during these dates and transport and accommodation is at its peak capacity. Additionally, during the New Year’s Break, many businesses, restaurants and shops close for business.
Citizens of Austria, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland and the UK can stay for a period of up to six months without a visa but if you are going to work during your stay you will need to obtain the appropriate working papers. When you arrive you will be given a 90-day Short Stay Visa upon arrival which can be extended for another ninety days while inside the country. Those of you visiting from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most European countries will also be granted the same visa when you arrive but if you intend to stay for longer you will need to organise this before you leave your home country. Residents of all other countries or those of you intending to work or study while you are in Japan should contact the Japanese Embassy in your home country to find out exactly what documentation you will need before travelling.
GETTING AROUND JAPAN
Japan has one of the most advanced public transport systems in the world so for those of you coming from less fortunate destinations, you’re in for a veritable transportation treat. Delays and cancellations are unheard of, the rail service covers almost every destination you can think of, but unfortunately thanks to its excellence, the price of travel is also much more expensive than countries with less efficient transportation systems.
First of all, if you intend to travel around the country a lot (for example to various cities), it’s best to get your hands on a JR pass as this is a much cheaper way to take unlimited trips on the bullet train within a certain number of days. It also allows unlimited travel on affiliated buses and ferries. TIP: Be sure to get this in your home country before arriving in Japan as it is only available to tourists and can not be purchased after arrival.
For seven days travel the pass will cost you ¥28,300, for fourteen days it’s ¥45,100 and for twenty one days it costs ¥57,700. First class passes are considerably more expensive. The only extra charges which you will incur if you have a pass are for over night sleeper trains. Finally, your pass starts as soon as you validate it. This can be done at any of the Japan Railways Travel Centres which you will find at most major rail stations and at Narita and Kansai airports. It is worth noting that you shouldn’t validate your pass until you know that you are going to making some long journeys. For example, if you’re staying in a city for a couple of days, you are really not going to get the most out of it.
Other major JR travel passes include the East Pass which can be used on all lines in the east of the country. Prices for this for anyone under 25 are ¥16,000 for five days, or ¥25,000 for ten days. It is worth noting that there are also four day flexible passes which do not necessitate travel on consecutive days but must be used within one month of your first journey. These passes also cost ¥16,000. The West San-yo Area Pass resembles the East Pass but applies to travel in the west only. This costs ¥20,000 for four days and ¥30,000 for eight days. The West Kansai Area Pass can be used for destinations including Himeji, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. A one day pass costs ¥2,000 and for four days it is ¥6,000. Finally the Kyushu Rail Pass costs ¥15,000 for five days and ¥20,000 for seven days. This pass also has to be purchased outside the country.
Another alternative to rail travel is to make your way around the country by bus. While they make take a great deal longer to reach their destination, no reservations are necessary and prices are much more backpacker friendly. As well as this, they serve those destinations not yet reached by train so in some cases your only option is to avail of the bus service. It is worth noting that the Japan Rail Pass is valid on some services too but in these cases people usually prefer to take ‘shinkansen’ or the bullet train.
Finally, because Japan is an island nation, numerous ferries operate between the various regions. The major connections link up Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe with the main ports of Hokkaido and Kyushu, but there are numerous other services which you can inquire about at any branch of the JNTO.
Photo Credit: Jeff Santos
CURRENCY IN JAPAN
The currency used in Japan is Yen (¥). Notes come in denominations of ¥1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 and the coins in use are ¥1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500.
JAPAN ON A BUDGET
Despite what many think, Japan is not an expensive country. You could easily get by allocating ¥10,000 (roughly £65) a day. The convenience stores here offer delicious and extremely reasonably priced food. For example, pop in to buy breakfast and pick up a sandwich, coffee and juice which would only set you back about ¥600 (£4), for lunch you could have a lunch set in a cafe for ¥1000- ¥1500 (£6-10) and head to one of the Department store basement floor food markets, or Depachicka, for a takeaway obento that might set you back anything between ¥700 to ¥1500 (£5 – £10)
In terms of accommodation, a bed in a hostel could be as little as ¥3000 (£20) and for getting around, you can zip around on the trains for as little as ¥200 (£1.50) per ride. Many hostels in Japan are located a little further out of the cities so it’s best to allocate at least ¥1000 (£6.50) a day for travel just in case.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
ACCOMMODATION IN JAPAN
Hostels in Japan are generally awesome and there’s a great variety of options. You can experience real Japanese culture in traditional guest houses or Ryokans, which have been part of the Japanese culture for centuries and originated to allow travellers an overnight rest on their long journeys. Japan also has plenty of modern, quirky hostels, infused with stylish, traditional twists. And then there’s the capsule hostels, where you sleep in your very own snug pod. If you want to check out the very best hostels in Japan, we’ve got you covered.
2 week itinerary
Let’s say it’s your first trip to Japan and had two weeks to spend, here is what I’d recommend.
I would say to start your Japan experience with one week in Tokyo. There is so much to see in Tokyo and it will give you a chance to both see some touristic things as well as wander like a local.
Take the train to Shibuya and pop out at the ‘hachiko’ exit. This will land you right in the famous middle of the scramble crossing. Take some selfies, soak up the millions of sounds. Head on up to the free sky deck of Shibuya’s Hikarie building for a birds eye view over Shibuya.
Spend the day wandering around the shops, listen to some J-pop in Tower Records, shop for quirky goods in Tokyu Hands and Donki Quijote and LoFT. Finish off the day with dinner at one of the many izakayas located everywhere in Shibuya (due to Tokyo’s space you will often find placed located up or downstairs so be sure to look beyond ground level for some gems). For those who like to enjoy their meals with some drinks, most izakayas will often a ‘nomihoudai’ (all-you-can-drink) for a certain period of time.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
Harajuku is Tokyo’s Youth culture fashion central. Packed with fashion outlets ranging from A.P.C. to Forever21, Beams to H&M, if you are after fashion, Harajuku has it all. If you visit on a weekend, be sure to pop past Yoyogi park’s entrance which is where you can spot Tokyo’s ‘Fruits’ style youth coming out to display their latest looks. A great people watching opportunity. There are many great shops on the back streets in between Vacant and Tokyu Plaza so please enjoy a wander through this area. Begin at Takeshita street and stock up on souvenirs at one of the biggest Daiso stores in the centre of Tokyo. Finish your day making a wish at Harajuku’s famous Meiji Shinto shrine.
Start your morning at the Tsukiji fish markets (open to the public from 10am) and taste some of the world’s freshest sushi. After you have wandered around the fish and vegetable markets take the train to Kichijoji and spend the day an afternoon strolling around Inokashira park (insiders tip: the swan boats in the lake look super cute but be warned, there’s a saying that if you go on it with your partner you will break up! So only paddle with friends, okay folks!), head to the izakaya area to soak up some street style vibes with smoky yakitori bars and tiny six seater gyoza bars.
If you like used clothing, vintage, thrift and antique stores then Shimokitazawa (or Shimokita) is the Tokyo suburb for you. Shimokita is a sweet little neighbourhood located in Setagaya-ku, only a few train stops away from Shibuya. In Tokyo questionnaire surveys about where young people want to live, Shimokitazawa is always one of the top three responses. It’s packed with teeny tiny six-seater bars, adorable cafes, loads of cheap and cheerful restaurants, vintage and retro clothing stores, live music venues, second-hand record stores, homewares and vintage stores. Pick up your coffee from Frankie Espresso, and enjoy strolling around this cute neighbourhood. Pop onto the Odakyu train line and take the short trip to Gotokuji to visit the famous cat temple before heading back to Shimokitazawa to have dinner at the atmospheric Shirube Izakaya. Here, groups of four people or more can order the all-you-can-drink for two hours + course meal for around ¥4000 per head. This will take the worrying out of knowing what to order. There is also an English menu available if you prefer to snack off the menu.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
It’s time to visit two of Tokyo’s hippest suburbs, Daikanyama and Nakameguro. These two suburbs are extremely popular with designers, artists, musicians and all round creative types. Start at Nakameguro and take a stroll along the river and its neighbouring streets. Buy a take away coffee from ‘Sidewalk Stand’ coffee shop. As lunch time approaches head to Afuri and order some vegan ramen (or regular ramen if vegan isn’t your cup of tea). In the afternoon, stroll to Daikanyama and spend time in T-site book store complex soaking up Japanese design. Log Road is Daikanyama’s answer to New York’s High Line and is situated on top of what used to be the Toyoko train line before it went underground. Stop for a beer at ‘Spring Valley Brewery’ and then continue to stroll along Log Road.
Shinjuku is a super busy shopping, business and dining suburb which has almost everything. Shinjuku station itself is the world’s busiest train station serving 3.5 million passengers every day and has over 200 exits. If you want to spend a day shopping, relaxing in a park, browsing through a bookshop, people watching or simply exploring Tokyo with your camera, then Shinjuku should be on your to-do list. If the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku gets too much, take a retreat in one of Tokyo’s prettiest parks ‘Shinjuku Gyoen’. Although this park charges a ¥200 entry fee, the Japanese garden makes it worthwhile. End the night at the Robot Restaurant.
Now it’s time to take small day trip from Tokyo. You could either head to Hakone and catch a glimpse of beautiful Mt Fuji and Lake Ashi. Or visit Mt Takao for a spot of hiking and nature. Or even head to Izu or Enoshima for some beach vibes. You might also like to day trip to the historical town of Kamakura.
Photo Credit: Jeff Santos
Let’s say that you have a 7 day JR Shinkansen (bullet train) pass. Now is the time to activate it at major stations. Book your reserved seat, pick up a ‘Ekiben’ (train station obento) and jump on board your train to Kyoto. When booking your seat, be sure to book a seat on the right-hand side of the train as Mt. Fuji can be viewed from the train about 40-45 minutes into the journey when departing from Tokyo station. Upon arrival in Kyoto head to Ryoan-ji, a beautiful temple with a stunning stone garden. Explore the beautiful and historical area of Gion where it’s not uncommon to see kimono clad ladies.
Hire a bike from one of Kyoto’s many bike rental shops and explore many of Kyoto’s beautiful temples. Stop for a walk along the famous Philospher’s path. Pull your bike over and take a well-deserved break at efish cafe which overlooks Kamo river.
Take the train to Arashiyama to visit the stunning bamboo forest and then pop on the Shinkansen and travel to Osaka. This Kansai region city is famous for it’s Okonimiyaki (Japanese pancake) and Takoyaki (octopus balls) so this should definitely be on the menu for your dinner in Osaka. You can select the toppings for your okonomiyaki pancake. I recommend a mix of buta (pork), ebi (prawn) and cheese. Delicious!
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
Spend the day in downtown Namba and Umeda in Osaka before jumping back on the shinkansen to head down to Fukuoka. After a long day you’ll want to relax at one of Fukuoka’s famous Yatai food stalls along the river. Order some yakitori (chicken on a skewer).
Take the train to Oita and experience Beppu Onsen, one of Japan’s best onsen (natural spring baths). This wonderful nature surroundings and soaking in a onsen will leave you revived and refreshed.
For those keen on the quirky, take the train to the small town of Konagai in Nagasaki and spot 16 bus stops in the shape of fruits! Or for those more interested in abandoned islands, head to Gunkanjima, a nickname that means ‘battleship island’ and explore the abandoned concrete buildings.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
Time for one more trip on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo ready for your ongoing flight. Enjoy reminiscing about your Japanese trip on the Shinkansen, and why not even enjoy some Japanese Asahi beer. You’ve deserved it! ‘Otsukaresama!’ – this is a Japanese word that roughly translates as ‘job well done’. Upon arrival in Tokyo what better way to end your trip than singing some karaoke and taking a purikura (sticker booth) photo as a travel keepsake.
FOOD IN JAPAN
5 Japanese foods you need in your life
Natto is one of those foods that is quite polarising in Japan. People either love it or hate it. And over my 8 years of living here in Tokyo I’ve tried many times, unsuccessfully, to master this acquired taste.
Natto is fermented soybeans with Bacillus. This traditional Japaneses breakfast dish often served on top of rice, is sticky and slimy in texture, has a unique smell, and is extremely healthy and inexpensive. If you manage to spot these slimy healthy beans at your breakfast buffet or in the supermarket (usually under ¥100) take the challenge! The word on the street is, that when starting to master the challenge of eating natto, you can put it on some on toast under melted cheese. However, the regular way is to eat them on the top of rice with a little soy sauce. Only for the brave hearted!
A Japanese staple, sushi is enjoyed all throughout the day. For a fun experience, pop into one of the Genki Sushi restaurants to experience sushi that you order on a touch screen shoots out along a conveyor belt and stops right in front of your table. The colour of the plate determines the cost of the dish, with most being only ¥100. Some dishes with more extravagant servings costing ¥320. Always dip the sushi fish side into the soy sauce rather than the bottom of the sushi piece to avoid the sushi rice falling apart. Each sushi piece is made to be mouth size and eaten all at once so be sure to pop the entire piece into your mouth when enjoying sushi. You will also find some pickled ginger on the table which can be used as a cleanser between sushi.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Udon, a thick noodle made from wheat flour is another Japanese favourite. These noodles are usually served in a hot soup with a broth of dashi, soy sauce and mirin. Slurping is considered the norm in Japan, so feel free to slurp up these delicious noodles. Some udon comes with toppings such as a poached egg, green onions, sliced fish cake and could also include shitake mushrooms and chicken. For spicy lovers, it’s perfectly acceptable to sprinkle some red chili pepper on top of your dish. Many restaurants also offer Tempura (often a prawn tempura) served on top of the hot udon soup. Udon is also often added to nabe (hot pot) at the end of the meal. Each prefecture has their own variations of udon such as thin udon from Akita prefecture, or a flat noodle from Nagoya. The stock also varies between prefectures. The most famous udon in Japan comes from Kagawa prefecture and in Takamatsu you can even take a udon bus tour.
Cheap, quick, warming, and easily accessible is another Japanese noodle dish, ramen. You will spot ramen restaurants everywhere on your travels. Many ramen shops take the order via a vending machine and you simply pass your ticket to the staff behind the counter. If the vending machine doesn’t have pictures, and you’re unsure what to order, a safe bet is to order the cheapest basic ramen. You can also order extras such as more noodles, nori (seaweed), a boiled egg, or some boiled pork for ramen toppings. It’s not uncommon for the staff to ask you about your noodle texture preference. To order the regular texture simply ask for ‘futsuu’. Ramen restaurants will also often sell gyoza dumplings which are a delicious accompaniment to ramen, and together are the perfect hangover cure or late night snack. Most ramen restaurants are cheap and cheerful with the most basic ramen coming in at under ¥600. For a slightly fancier ramen, head over to one of Afuri’s restaurants. They offer a seasonal vegan ramen for ¥1350 which has a vegetable based broth and is topped with so many colourful vegetables this highly instagrammable dish is almost too pretty to eat.
You can’t leave Japan without trying one of Japan’s most famous and popular obento boxes. These can be bought from convenience stores, supermarkets and food halls. With obento contents ranging from fried chicken, tonkatsu (a deep fried bread coated pork), grilled salmon, and filled with many small osozai (side dishes) and rice, there is something for everyone. Convenience store and supermarket obento cost approximately ¥600 and the staff will often provide a microwave or offer to heat it up for you. It’s also perfectly normal and safe to enjoy an obento without heating. Some of the prettiest obento boxes can be found at food halls usually located on the basement floor of department stores such as Isetan. Walking around these food halls is, in itself a visual feast and one not to be missed.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
5 Japanese restaurants you may never heard of… but you HAVE to try
Japan loves novelty and they don’t stop when it comes to restaurants. With a wide range of quirky themed restaurants to cater for all needs, I’ve highlighted my Tokyo favourites.
1. Kawaii Monster Cafe
This cafe is based in Harajuku which is a suburb buzzing with Tokyo’s hippest fashionistas. The concept of Kawaii Monster Cafe expands on it’s surroundings by gobbling you up in this colour explosion. You literally enter the cafe / monster through the tongue of ‘choppy’ the monster. Your order will be taken by cute ‘monster girls’ and you can order items such as a ‘Colourful Rainbow Pasta’ served in a painters palette (¥1300) or a ‘Non Druggy Cocktail’ which looks more like a science experiment for ¥720. Be sure to charge your cameras before heading to this cafe, because you’ll want to document this!
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
2. Robot Restaurant
This once in a lifetime experience of a robot show and dinner is worth the ¥8000 splurge. Feast your eyes on colourful illuminated robots dancing as you enjoy a pre-selected obento meal. This is one fantastically spectacular experiences that can only be found in Japan.
3. Brasserie Kyushoku Toban
In Japan, a healthy and nutritious lunch is provided to primary school students with the children helping to serve the lunch trays. These lunches, called Kyushoku, often include rice, a meat or fish dish, miso soup, a bottle of milk, and a fruit (often a frozen mikan which is similar to a mandarin). These lunches are served on colourful retro style trays. But if you missed out on experiencing school life in Japan, fear not, as there is a Kyushoku themed restaurant in Okachimachi where you can sit in a cafe designed to look like a classroom and order your own kyushoku meal. Here, at Brasserie Kyushoku Toban you can expect to pay approximately ¥1500.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
4. Tokyo Owl Cafe Hoot Hoot
We have all heard of Japan’s famous cat cafes, but this ‘eating-with-pets’ theme has expanded to include an Owl cafe. One hour and one drink (a coffee or a milkshake) will set you back ¥2500 and you are free to pat the owls and have your photograph taken with these friendly owls.
5. Sanrio Puroland Food court
For kawaii (cute) lovers, this one is for you. Take a seat in this pink coloured food court and eat dishes based on Sanrio characters. The menu includes curry, ramen, desserts and assorted drinks. Try the ‘My Melody Pink Curry’ for ¥1400 or, for the more adventurous, order the crazy blue coloured ‘Cinnamoroli Sky-blue Curry’ for ¥1300.
Japanese are extremely polite and when travelling here it’s best to know a few basic rules.
In Japan, to maintain order, people line up behind specially designated markings on train platforms. And on the subject of trains, you might be surprised at just how quiet even packed trains are. Talking or talking on a phone in Japan is considered a big no-no. In other train etiquette news, if you’re wondering about how to ease onto what seems like an already crammed train, a slight nod bow to the passengers already in the train, and then simply turn your back against the train, hold onto the top of the door frame and slowly ease into the train. Double points for saying a soft ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) before entering the train.
Photo Credit: Ebony Bizys
Blowing your nose in public is considered rude so head to the bathroom if you need to blow your nose. A similar rule applies to coughing, if you need to cough, pop on a face mask first. These disposable face masks can be purchases inexpensively at convenience stores, supermarkets or drug stores.
Eating while walking on the streets or on a local train is to be avoided, with the exception of the Shinkansen (bullet train) where it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy an obento and beer as you travel to your destination. In fact, there are specially designed obento ‘Ekiben’ made for this type of travel (‘Eki’ is the word for a train station, and ‘ben’ is a shortening of ‘obento’).
Travellers are often left wandering what to say when shop staff greet them with ‘irrashaimase’. In actual fact, you don’t need to say anything back and a simple nod or smile will be the most appropriate way to react.
Tipping In Japan
Overall, tipping in Japan is not customary or expected. The Japanese are very respectful and polite, so they may even refuse a tip when offered, but do not to be offended by this.
Safety in Japan
Generally, Japan is a very safe place. The people of Japan are friendly, polite and very respectful of others. The main area to remain cautious and vigilant is around bars and clubs. In certain tourist hot-spots (particularly in the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho entertainment areas of Tokyo) there has been a few reported incidents of tourists being overcharged and targeted by pickpockets. However, incidents like this are rare, which is shown in the very low rate of crime.
With more than 50,000 convenience stores in Japan, you never have to walk far to find your local shop. In Japan, they are known as “konbini” and there are three main competitors; 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart. Most are open 24/7 and sell all the essentials you need for daily life such as hot and cold food, coffee, snacks, sweets and basic toiletries. Konbini’s also usally have ATMs that accept cards from overseas, which can be very useful as some smaller local establishments may only take cash. Foreign cards can also be used at the ATM inside Japan Post too.
Hello = Konnichiwa
Thank you = Arigatou
What is this? = Kore wa nan desu ka?
How much is this? = Kore wa ikura desu ka?
Where is… = … wa doko desu ka?
Where is the station? = Eki wa doko desu ka?
This is delicious! = Oishii!
That was delicious! = Gochisousamadeshita
Please = Onegaishimasu (or) Kudasai
One coffee please = Kohi o hitotsu onegaishimasu
Two miso ramens please = Miso ramen futatsu onegaishimasu
Cute! = Kawaii!
Great! = Sugoii!
English? = Eigo?
Japanese Language = Nihongo
I don’t understand = Wakarimasen
One moment = Chotto matte
Bill please = Okaikei kudasai
Cheers! = Kanpai!
Sorry = Gomennasai
Excuse me (also sorry) = Sumimasen
About the Author
Ebony Bizys is an Australian / Lithuanian designer and author based in Tokyo since 2010.
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