The train attendant enters the coach and bows to all passengers before she begins to check everyone’s tickets. Everyone from the 7-eleven, to the mom & pops, to the fancy restaurant, to the local convenience mart greets you with a smile, bows, and says thank you various times. The service here is incredible! As a tourist you feel welcome everywhere you go. One day I was at a train station and I stopped in the middle of a busy hall hesitating about which way to go, it only took two seconds for someone from the railway company to rush over to me and offer assistance in English. Once in a while during my site-seeing the locals would come and say hello and welcome me to Japan. A lot of people here seem to speak English, at least in the touristy areas. You can always find someone to help you if needed. All signs on the streets, in the tourist attractions, in the railway stations, and in hotels are usually translated into English and Chinese.
I had learned from other travelers that Japan could be very expensive for a budget traveller so I decided to stay for only two weeks. On average, I ended up spending US$60 per day; which included accommodation (in capsule hotels, guesthouses and ryokans), meals, local transportation (subway/buses) and some site-seeing expenses. As far as long-distance transportation what most travelers recommend (including me now) is getting the JRP or the Japan Railways Pass; which allows you to use any of the Japan Railway trains, including the high speed Shinkansen without the need to make prior reservations. You have to get this pass before arriving into Japan and it only works for tourists (with 90-day visitor visa). These are easy to activate at any of the Railway stations or airports in the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Once it is activated, you just show it to the attendant in the booth right next to the automated machines and go to your platform to wait for your train. Make sure you wait in front of the “non-reserved seats” areas. Everything is very well marked and the attendants are always ready to help. I ended up using the pass enough times to justify the cost of it. If you plan to see many cities, I would highly recommend getting it. If you want to learn more about it, visit www.jrpass.com
First stop OSAKA:
I wanted to experience a Japanese capsule hotel so I found one in Osaka. This particular hotel was quite large with separate capsule rooms, sauna rooms, dressing rooms with lockers, and separate bathing rooms for men and women. The bathing rooms have toiletries available like shampoo, conditioner, body gel and even disposable razors. At check in you are assigned a locker where you find fresh towels everyday. The only part that I didn’t like too much was having to be completely naked to enter the bath room. No swimsuits or towels are allowed inside. Luckily the first time I used the sauna and bath no one was there. I am shy when it comes to being naked in front of strangers, I grew up in Colombia at a time where there were no locker rooms to change before gym class. You just wore your gym sweats to school and you kept them on all day.
Besides enjoying all of the amenities at the capsule hotel I enjoyed walking around this big and beautiful city. There is great food everywhere, and lots of lit up streets to wander around. I visited the busy streets around Namba and the famous Dotonbori. These are always very crowded, full of shops, eateries, sushi, lights, Japanese girls with tons of make up, and lots of arcade places ready to entertain. I had my first sushi meal in 15 months at a sushi boat place; six plates and tea for the equivalent of US$8. What a bargain!
Next stop was KYOTO
It is just a quick train ride from Osaka. This is a beautiful cultural city with narrow streets, traditional Japanese houses, temples, Zen gardens, and girls walking around in kimonos everywhere. It is very popular for tourists, mostly Japanese and other Asians to rent a Kimono for the day and wear it as they visit the different attractions.
I went to Gion corner, the popular Maiko quarter to learn all about this beautiful icon of traditional Japanese culture. Maiko is the name for the Geiko (aka. Geisha) during her teenage years while in training. I visited a museum that explained everything about the art of being a Maiko and saw a traditional dance.
I visited various Buddhist shrines and temples, each with its well maintained Japanese garden.
The most famous and popular tourist attraction is the Fushimi-Inari shrine a place where the God Inari of good harvest, business and prosperity is worshipped. The main shrine is at the base of Mt. Inari and a smaller inner shrine is at the top. The thousand gates or Senbon Torii’s lead you there as you make your way up the mountain. The fox known as Kitsune is everywhere and is considered the messenger of the gods. I met Constance and Bal from LA who accompanied me to the top.
I experienced the organized and well managed bus system, specifically the tourist lines. They have a screen that shows the stop coming up and a recording that tells you all about the importance of the site and why you should stop to visit. I stopped at Kinkaku or the golden pavilion where there are relics of the Buddha. An ancient stateman’s villa turned into a temple (Rokuon-ji) for Buddha. The temple stands in the pond and is not accessible by tourists, the garden surrounding it is beautiful.
I also visited Ginkaku a world cultural heritage site, and a gorgeous zen temple that blends in harmoniously with the surrounding nature. It is complete with paintings on sliding doors, a tea house, a pond and the sand.
I ended the day at my favorite place of all, the Kiyomizu temple, built over 1200 years ago on Mt Otowa in the Higashiyama mountains of Kyoto. This temple was built for Kannon, the deity of great mercy and compassion. This temple offers a spectacular city view of Kyoto and is nestled inside beautiful lush green trees.
My next stop was TAKAYAMA
A popular tourist destination in the Japanese Alps. This was my first time using the JPR for long distance travel. Hyperdia is a good website to get the latest schedule on all trains in Japan. You can download the app on your phone and click the option to only show trains covered by the JRP. There is a direct service from Kyoto to Takayama on the Hida 25 Ltd Express with a few stops along the way. This type of train is wider with big windows so that passengers can enjoy the scenery. The train goes through a canyon between Nagoya and Shirakawaguchi with vertical walls full of pine trees and bamboo groves, absolutely spectacular! I arrived to the town and found my hotel within walking distance of the station; which was super convenient. I went for a quick traditional soba noodles lunch before joining a tour bus to go to the famous Shirakawa-go world heritage site, about 45 min from town.
I met a very nice Japanese girl Yurika traveling by herself for the weekend and Oscar and Raul from Spain who were staying at my same hotel. We walked around the town, visited some of the old heritage houses with an old traditional fire place in the middle of it; which is now forbidden in the town due to the fire hazard.
I visited the Hachiman shrine and temple where they make the special sake for the gods during the Doburoku festival. This place was built in the 8th century and the parishioners have kept the tradition of making this special, very strong and sour sake for the gods. This is considered a sacred drink to thank the gods for a good year’s harvest. It is not sold anywhere in Japan and it is only shared here in the town with the visitors during the festival in October or in the shrine museum any other time during the year. I tried it and the alcohol content was so high that I felt light-headed almost instantly.
We were lucky to be in the town for the last Bon Dance of the summer. The locals came out and danced together in a big circle and invited the foreign visitors to join in. They also had a lot of sake, beer and stalls of meat on skewers.
The strange thing is that you see a lot of men in the bars getting drunk, most of them married (we asked) but the wives are not with them. It appears they stay home and watch the children while the men go out. We did meet one girl that had just moved into town who joined us for a drink. She was single and working in the tourism industry. I didn’t see many women out and about in the smaller towns.
And finally TOKYO
One of the cities that have been high on my bucket list. I took about three trains all the way to my hostel, all covered by the JRP; which was awesome. One of the ways to save money on accommodations in Japan is by staying in hostels. The good thing is that nowdays they separate beds with wall partitions or put curtains around them for privacy. I did a whirlwind tour of Tokyo in one day and a half, covered a lot of ground and saw all the popular spots, and ended with a visit of Tokyo tower; which offered magnificent views of the city. I did a brief visit of the palace before taking my next train to Gotemba in the mountains. I was hoping to see a Sumo wrestling match or some Kabuki theatre while in the city but I missed both seasons by a few days.
Gotemba is a popular place to stay before and after climbing Mt. Fuji. It is also known for the shopping outlets. My experience on Mt Fuji was incredible, one that I will never forget, specially because I did it on my own. If you want to read about it, please visit my previous post. After Mt Fuji, I took four trains to make it all the way to Hiroshima in the western part of the island (all covered by the JRP). I stayed in a Ryokan; which is a traditional Japanese hotel. You get a room with a mat, a thick futon to use as a mattress, a pillow, and some covers. You also get a nice table with a tea set on it and the Yukata to wear after your bath. This place also offered a traditional Japanese bathroom complete with the hot tub and all toiletries.
I ended my tour of Japan with a quick but important visit to the city of Hiroshima. This is a city that suffered total destruction and horrible human losses after the first nuclear bomb was dropped here by the US during WWII. The city has since recovered and has created a beautiful park and a museum at and around ground 0. This is a very moving and humbling place that everyone should visit, not only to pay tribute to the victims of this horrible tragedy but to learn about how the Japanese have recovered since, and their efforts to stop nuclear proliferation around the world. Whatever I write here about this very special place will not do it justice. This has to be experienced in person.
I took the Shinkansen back to Osaka to meet Ted, a friend from a friend in LA, also traveling around the world. We were joined by another LA girl that Ted had met touring around Kyoto. We had a nice Japanese dinner together before I had to catch my train to the airport. Unfortunately I miscalculated my travel time and missed the last train going to the airport. For some reason this service stops quite early at night so if you want to get to the airport after 11:00 pm, you pretty much have to arrange for private transport. I ended up taking a train to the nearest town and then a taxi which cost me US$53 for 11 miles. This is a fortune for a budget traveler! I didn’t even have that much cash on me since I had spent almost all of my yen already. I arrived at 1:00 am at the airport and the driver did not take credit cards so he followed me into the airport to find an ATM. I was so tired that instead of $50 I took out US$500. I had to exchange the rest of the money into Chinese yuan and of course lost quite a bit on the exchange. At least I was able to save some money by sleeping at the airport for free. At the Osaka airport they have a room in Terminal 2 full of long benches where travelers can rest for the night if they have an early flight in the morning. They even provide blankets at no cost and wake up service if you need it. There are bathrooms and shower rooms available 24 hours everyday. There is also a normal hotel inside the airport if you want privacy but it will cost you…
Japan turned out to be an amazing country, full of beauty, welcoming people, super organized and clean, and as expected, very easy to travel. I am sure I will be back here in the future.