Japan is a crazy and exciting country, and an amazing mix of modernity and ancient culture. Not many places can boast a Robot Restaurant and a 1000 year old temple in the same country, let alone in the same city! Add the astounding array of delicious food, the quiet peacefulness and great hospitality of the local people, and the fact that their train system makes it so easy to get anywhere, and you have a country that’s on most travellers’ “must see” list. A lot of these travellers skip Japan because they’re worried about the cost, but we managed to travel around a big chunk of the country in just over two weeks for $120 CAD/day. Especially on your travels around SEA, adding Japan to your trip is a refreshing and exciting change to your itinerary. Don’t miss out on this amazing place, unlike any other country in the world!
- Tax – Tax is 8% on most items, although there are tax free shops for tourists (and they are usually clearly labelled in English as such).
- Currency – Japanese Yen (80 JPY to 1 CAD). ATMs are everywhere, will often charge 210 yen per transaction, and you can take out up to 50,000 yen.
- Tipping – Absolutely not, and it is usually considered rude.
- Beer is usually 400-700 yen on tap in restaurants, and 340 yen tall cans in convenience stores. You can buy tall cans of Happoshu in 7-eleven for 286 yen, which tastes like beer, but is low-malt to get around Japan’s beer taxation rules. Chu-hi’s are sochu mixed with citrus (basically a mixed drink) and 6-8% alcohol tall cans cost 240 yen in convenience stores.
- Water is drinkable all over Japan unless marked otherwise. Save bottles by refilling your own from the tap!
- Meals are 600 yen on the low side (quick bowl of ramen) or around 1800 yen at a normal sit down restaurant. We ate at 7-eleven at least once a day for about 600 yen total. They have great pre-made meals and they’ll even heat them up for you.
- Language – Japanese. English is relatively well known, but our google translate app definitely helped us out a few times.
- Hello – Kon-ee-chee-wa during the day. Oh-hi-oh in the morning, and Com-bon-wa in the evening.
- Thank you – Are-ay-gat-oh, or more formally Are-ay-gat-oh gus-ay-mas (thank you very much)
- Local Food – So many new foods to try in this amazing country, we couldn’t get enough of it! Here are some local foods you should try!
- Sushi – This one is a no brainer. You can buy sushi triangles in convenience stores as a snack for 120-160 yen. Conveyor belt sushi, like Ginzosushi, is a great place to try sushi without breaking the bank.
- Okonomiyaki – This is a delicious savoury pancake filled with cabbage and topped with amazing sauce. Our favourite variation was in Hiroshima where they also added noodles!
- Ramen – Another obvious dish, and most ramen restaurants are perfect for a quick cheap meal.
- Japanese Curry – We didn’t know Japan had a curry until we came here. It’s not spicy, and we’d compare it more to a stew than a curry, but it was perfect served over rice.
- Mochi/Dango – Rice cakes. There are tons of variations on them, so get tasting!
- Yakitori – Grilled skewers of meat, usually found at izakayas (very small bars).
- Gyoza – Great for an appetizer or snack; basically Japan’s version of dumplings.
- Always take off your shoes when entering a temple or someone’s house. Some hostels allow you to wear shoes, but if you see a pile or cubby of shoes, it’s a pretty good indication that shoes should be taken off. In the winter slippers are usually supplied in temples and hostels.
- Other tips:
- Shinkansen – High speed bullet trains that take you to most of the major cities. Read more about the routes and how to buy a discount pass here.
- Izakaya – Tiny Japanese bar that usually serves drinks and yakitori (grilled meat skewers). Often charges a table charge of 300-500 yen. This table charge will come with a small appetizer though, like edamame!
- Tokyo – This crazy mega-city is a little overwhelming at first, but by the end you won’t want to leave. Splitting this city into areas helps you explore it more easily, and once you get the hang of it, it’s unlike any other city in the world. We walked from an ancient shrine, to a crazy monster themed café in 10 minutes. With the outstanding amount of diverse tourist attractions in this city, it works for every kind of traveller. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Tokyo here for tips on what to see, how to navigate the subway system, and where to ear!
- Kyoto – This city is more manageable than Tokyo, and is perfect for temple gurus. You’ll spend your days hopping between beautiful ancient temples and amazing rock gardens, while nourishing yourself with amazing Japanese noodles. Kyoto also has some amazing walking streets to try street food and buy souvenirs, and to just simply walk around and enjoy. You’ll want to spend longer than planned in Kyoto, it was definitely the city we were least excited to move on from.
- Nara – This is a city that can be done in a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, but if you’re in Japan, you can’t miss out on seeing this ancient capital city. The main draw is the partly domesticated deer wandering the city, but you’ll be blown away by the ancient temples. The best thing is that because the temples are so ancient, they are different than most of the temples you might be a bit bored of seeing throughout the rest of Japan. You cannot miss seeing the largest bronze buddha statue in the world, in the massive Todai-ji temple.
Worth a Trip
- Osaka – The amount of entertainment available in this city is amazing. Both the famous Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, and Universal Studios Japan are just a train ride away. There are countless fun bar options, and crazy shopping streets to check out. If you’re here for the nightlife and entertainment, you’ll want to stay a few days, if not we still recommend spending at least one night here to experience the city.
- Hakone – This is one of the main tourist spots to see Mount Fuji, although the area has much more to offer. Splurge to stay at an ryokan (traditional hotel) with an onsen (hot spring) and pamper yourself like a real local does when they visit this area. There are boat cruises and cable cars that you can take to catch different views of the majestic mountain, as well as shrines among the beautiful forests to visit.
- Hiroshima – When most people think of this city, they think of the deadly nuclear bombing that flattened it during WW2. Visiting the shrines and museums to learn about this terrible chapter in human history is incredibly important, but Hiroshima is more than that. They are known for their very tasty okonomiyaki, and neighbouring Miyajima island is one of the must see tourist destinations in Japan.
- Nozawa Onsen – If you love skiing, but don’t want to travel too far from the main tourist trail, we highly recommend Nozawa Onsen. The small ski village keeps it’s vibe as one of the oldest ski resorts in Japan, while also catering to tourism very successfully. The snow was amazing, the ski-side restaurants were great, the onsens were perfect, and the aprés ski options were plentiful. It’s also close to Snow Monkey Park, where you can watch monkeys chill in onsens, so don’t miss out on that.
- Kanazawa – This is probably the city we visited that was on the least amount of travel itineraries. It’s more accessible now that high speed trains are stopping in the area. Kanazawa is home to Kenrokuen Garden, one of the three great gardens of Japan, and some great areas to walk around including a Samurai and Geisha district. Everything is within walking distance of the main garden and castle, which makes it an easy city to explore in a day or two.