Traveling in Japan
Japan was the first stop on our 2017 Asia trip. We arrived in Tokyo where we spent one week before going to Kyoto. After a couple of days in Kyoto we proceeded down to Hiroshima, where we stayed for another week. We came back up and stayed in Osaka for a few more days before taking a flight to Okinawa, where we spent 9 days with my cousin who lives there. Japan has one of the most unique and profound cultures I have ever encountered. The meticulous, borderline perfectionist, behavior that the Japanese people demonstrate in everything that they do makes life in Japan very structured and organized. Japan has the 3rd largest economy in the world in terms of GDP and is host to many cities with over 1 million people living in them. The dense populations in these cities make personal space a rare commodity. Many people find their privacy mentally within themselves, instead of in the spaces surrounding them. The people are friendly and helpful when you need them to be, but otherwise most people seem to keep to themselves in public settings. There is plenty to do in Japan for a budget traveler, and in the month that we spent in the country we did not even come close to seeing it all. There are a lot of great outdoor activities and ways to experience the natural world, as well as the option to get swallowed alive by mega cities like Tokyo. The food in Japan is celebrated around the world and is of course the best right from the source. The sake flows like water everywhere you go and the sushi is as fresh as can be. In a country that is often regarded as one of the most expensive travel destinations, there is still wholesome and affordable fun to be had in Japan for anyone.
The Cost of Travel in Japan
- Currency: Japanese Yen
- Exchange Rate: $1 US Dollar = 110 YEN (June 2017)
- Airbnb Asakusa: $20
- Airbnb Kyoto: $22
- Airbnb Hiroshima: $28
- Airbnb Osaka: $23.60
- Lunch/Dinner (restaurant): $7-$10 per person for ramen or $4-$5 for a beef noodle bowl. 100 YEN conveyor belt sushi places are a great way to try a bunch of different sushi for $1 per plate. Not only can you get full for about $8 but you can drink bottomless matcha green tea while you are there.
- Lunch/Dinner (home): $2-$5 for two people to buy a stir fry packet and some pot stickers (goyza) from the store and maybe a juice.
- Beer or sake (restaurant): $5-$8 for a pint or a glass
- Cup of gas station sake: 220 YEN ($2 usd)
- Grocery Store Sushi: $4-$8 for a meal (half price if you go between 5-6pm)
- Convenience Store Corndogs: $1
- Bus Tickets: $37 to go from Hiroshima to Osaka or from Tokyo to Kyoto.
*Credit Cards: Japan is still primarily a cash based economy. Convenience stores, grocery stores, and most chain restaurants accept credit cards now, but cash is still used by most people for most things.
*ATM’s: ATM’s are available to use all over Japan and can be found in every convenience store, as well as in train stations and shopping malls.
Tips for Traveling in Japan
- The Willer Express highway bus service is the cheapest way to get between cities. The rail pass is only worth the money if you only have a week or two in Japan and want to visit every major city in that time.
- Be careful with your cash. Everything smaller than 1,000 YEN ($9usd) is a coin, and you can easily lose $20 bucks out of your pocket in a bus seat if you aren’t careful.
- All of the big chain convenience stores (Family Mart, Lawson, and 7/11) offer free wifi and are on every street corner. They also all have ATM’s that work with Western debit cards.
- Airbnb is the cheapest way to stay in any city in Japan. You can find great rooms in the heart of any city for under $30.
- Food and Drink
- Okonomiyaki– Cabbage, noodles, egg, meat, and a thin batter, cooked on a skillet into pancake and covered in a savory sauce, topped with benito (fish flakes)
- Takoyuki– Think thanksgiving stuffing batter, made into balls, with a tiny octopus in the center. Covered in the same sauce as okonomiyaki & topped with benito
- Sushi-Obviously, but there are so many different types I can’t even name them all!
- Ramen-A heaping bowl of broth, noodles, pork, and egg. There are many variations though with all different types of ingredients. Some are creamy, some are spicy, you can have just about any type of meat or seafood in it or even go vegetarian depending on the broth.
- Eel– Eel is pretty popular most places in Japan. Often served on a bed of rice with a kind of BBQ sauce.
- Sake- Rice wine drank hot or chilled. It is as much a part of the culture and history of Japan as anything could be. We visited numerous sake breweries and I still have so much more to learn.
- Awamori-A high proof distilled rice liqueur popular in Okinawa and no longer popular with my cousin and I.
- Sochu-Sochu is used in a lot of mixed drinks. It’s kind of like a dirty vodka, but it can be made out of lots of different things.
- Iced Coffee- Iced or cold coffee is consumed more than water in Japan for some reason. There are some 100 different companies making bottles and cans of cold coffee, which makes up a substantial portion of every vending machine and convenience store’s drink inventory.
- Green Tea- Green tea or powdered matcha green tea is not only served in various forms practically everywhere, it is also the most popular flavor for sweets like ice cream, candy, and baked goods.
- Corn dogs- The convenience stores don’t just make them for American tourists. Locals enjoy a $1 dog just as much as anyone else.
- Soman- Noodles served plain with a side of ice cold fish soup suace to dunk them in. Perfect on a hot day.
- Pigs Feet- An Okinawan specialty. Tender, fatty, fall off the bone pork.
- Raw Eggs-Sometimes you will order a dish at a Japanese restaurant and it will come with a cup, a yolker, and an uncracked raw egg….
*Check out my photo blog post for pictures of some of this food!
Things to do in Japan
- Tokyo at night
- Miyajima island
- Kyoto shrines and temples
- Himeiji Castle
- Hiroshima Carps baseball game
- Okinawa beaches
You could live in Tokyo for a year and still not see everything there is to see. So, the week we spent in Tokyo doesn’t even come close to covering it, but we certainly tried our best. We stayed in the Asakusa side of town which has the Senso-ji temple and many great restaurants and shopping areas. We made day trips to the Shibuya, Ueno, Shimbashi, and Odaiba. We went to the Tsukiji fish market and tried all kinds of great food and slurped down some giant oysters. The subway system is super easy to navigate and can get you to any part of town with ease. There is plenty of entertaining stuff to do in Tokyo for free, too.
Kyoto has well over 1,000 different temples and shrines, so you have to pick wisely where you spend your time. The town is really spread out too, so don’t worry too much about the location of your room. We were really far from down town, but pretty close to some of the shrines and temples. The best way to navigate Kyoto is to rent a bicycle for your time there and then you can ride to all of the sites. The big ticket item is the Fushimi-Inari gates on the mountain. It is a seemingly infinite maze of torii gates (pictured) that stretch all over the mountain side and occasionally break to reveal stunning views of the city from above. The best part is…it is totally free.
Kobe is a great day trip from Kyoto or Osaka. There is a really nice hike to some waterfalls that take you back into the hills for a pleasant break from the city as well as some stunning views of the skyline. There aren’t a lot of other activities in Kobe besides the typical restaurant/shopping spread in town though. There is a strip of town that has probably 100 different restaurants selling Kobe beef in various forms. It is world renown and very expensive. We really wanted to try some, but couldn’t bring ourselves to shell out the $25/ person for 3 bites of steak.
Hiroshima is a fantastic city that is bustling with activity night and day. We spent one week in Hiroshima and got to see and do so many things. We purchased a 3 day “tourist pass” for 1,000 yen that allowed us to ride all of public transit within a given area. That included buses, trolleys, and ferries. We went to Saijo and toured all of the sake breweries. We got to attend a Carps baseball game (the Hiroshima minor league team) as well. We made a day trip to Miyajima to see the torii in the ocean and do a nice hike to the top of Mt. Misen. We also spent a day at the museums learning about the history of the city before and after the war. Peace Memorial Park is an interesting place to visit to reflect on the history of the way and see remnants left after the atomic bomb.
Miyajima is a quick day trip from downtown Hiroshima. We took a trolley down to the shore and then a ferry across to the island. The island is really close to the mainland. Once we got there, we of course went straight to the big torii gate shrine. The tide changes throughout the day, so when we first arrived you could walk right out to it, but when we were leaving, the water was waste high. We hiked up the trail to the very top of Mt. Misen for one of the greatest views of my life. Back in the town of Miyajima there are plenty of restaurants to get the local specialty of Okonomiyaki and oddly a lot of small deer running around that you can pet.
Osaka is a great place to station yourself if you are going to be travelling around the Kansai region. You can take trains from between Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, and several other popular areas. We bought the 3 day Kansai Thru pass for $52 but it paid for itself quickly because we were doing so much. We spent one day going to Himeji castle which was a really cool place to be. Back in Osaka, the are called Dōtonbori is a must see. Go at night for dinner and you see all the bright signage lit up and the thousands of people out walking around.
Okinawa probably isn’t on the list for most backpackers going through Japan. We chose to visit Okinawa to pay a visit to my cousin who lives there with his wife. We spent 10 days in there and it was raining for 8 of them. That being said, the weather caused us to get to know the island in other ways. We went on a culinary safari of sorts to start with. Having locals to guide us, we were able to try all of the different local food, drinks, and snacks. We also were able to see most of the entire island while finding various rainy day activities. We visited the towns of Naha, Nago, and Jetah, while we spent most of our time in Yomitan. The Okinawa aquarium was the coolest aquarium I’ve ever been to. On the nice days, the snorkeling we did in Yomitan was really great too. The reef is still very much alive. I can see how in nicer weather it could be some of the best reef in the world. We ate shabu shabu at a nice restaurant, consumed plenty of awamori, and played arcade games too.