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Travelling to Japan?

umbrellasCosts

Of course its not as cheap here as the rest of Asia, but some things were better priced than I expected. Overall I would suggest that you budget for about £85-£100 a day if you are moving around and sightseeing and not roughing it. That factors in about £25 a night for a bed, £40 a day for your Japan Rail Pass, £20-35 for food, drink and entrance fees etc. Actually food can be really good value. One day we had a ramen (noodle soup with extras in), on the side we had rice and fried chicken which the children ate. We drank water, as always delivered free to the table. This meal was filling and delicious for under £10 for the 4 of us. If you want an alcoholic drink out its usually about £3.50 a go so that can knock you budget right up.

Getting About

The Japan Rail Pass is well worth getting if you are aiming to get about a bit. You can use many bullet trains within these, plus JR trains in Tokyo - although that its the best way to get good value out of it. We had to get bus' when in the Alps and they weren't covered. You can start your pass on any day you like, but you have to get the voucher before you arrive in Japan - proving that you are a tourist with an onward ticket. It cost £274 for one week and I worked out the price of each section I was travelling (by googling it) to make sure that we needed the pass.

It is also possible to book reduced priced flights as a tourist. Again you need to buy these before you arrive. We took 2 long flights (Tokyo - Hokkaido - Osaka) for £75 each.

What to bring

shoesIn 3 weeks in Japan I never used my own toothbrush or paste, shampoo, conditioner, soap or towel. These were provided in every room plus in the onsen or public baths at places we stayed, along with hairdryer and even razors. You can leave all this stuff at home. If you are planning to visit an onsen, it is about washing (thoroughly) and then relaxing in the bath. No swimsuits are allowed, but don't worry you get used to the group nakedness very quickly - its the most natural thing to the Japanese. A robe may be provided which you can also wear to the dining room.

If you are visiting in June to mid July bring a raincoat and maybe buy an umbrella too. Many hostels have a collection of umbrellas for your use. When it rains it pours. Also at this time of year expect it to be hot too - around 25-30 degrees.

There are coin-operated washing machines and dryers everywhere.

Don't forget you need to remove your shoes whenever you enter a building, and slippers are then provided for inside so its worth bring shoes that aren't a pain to get on and off. Most of the time there are toilet slippers also. It can get very confusing and we were caught out more than once with toilet slippers in the lounge (shock, horror!)

Getting Understood

plasticfoodMost people in Japan don't speak English but will do their best to help you somehow - with gesturing or your attempts from a phrase book or the few words they do know. The Japanese are so friendly and welcoming, and they often did things that blew me away. If you are lost they may well stop what they are doing and go with you to get you on the right track. When leaving some places we stayed at, we were seen off with (double armed) waves. Older ladies often offered the children (who were the same height as them!) small gifts or sweets.

Signage in English can be seen everywhere. When on a train the message regarding stops is translated to English also. It is much easier to get about than I expected.

Plastic look-alike food is displayed outside restaurants, particularly in Tokyo. It may not seem very appealing, but it helps you know what you are ordering.

Their efficiency and respectful ways are notable too. If confused trying to buy a Metro ticket simply press the Assistance button and a head almost instantly pops out, seemingly from the machine itself, to resolve things.  A guard on a train will bow on entry and exit of each carriage as he passes through. 

I feel sad to think that Japanese tourists may not get the same thoughtfulness when they come to other countries.

Other customs and quirks

There are hardly any rubbish bins around, but no rubbish. This country functions in a supremely organised way, without feeling oppressive. It just works.

Face masks are often worn to contain germs and limit allergies.

The toilets are a marvel. Lights, music, warmed seat, well-aimed jets are all part of the experience in a Western loo. One even raised its lid automatically in welcome! Traditional squat toilets are also used.

Chop sticks are the customary cutlery, and traditionally the meal would be taken at a low table whilst sat on a cushion. Food was varied and really tasty - teppenyaki, sushi, ramen …. One disastrous meal was a noodle soup with half cooked egg served stone cold on ice and the occasional slimey side dish was tricky too.

kimonosTipping is not part of Japanese culture. A tip will be refused. How refreshing is that!

Japan must be safe, it certainly felt it. And the fact parents leave 6 year old school kids to trot home alone seems to verify that. It must have a really low crime rate - I didn't see anything remotely suspect.

Kimonos are still worn - we saw many women elegantly dressed like this particularly in Kyoto and at the Sumo.

Talking about the Sumo, try and incorporate it in your trip. There are competitions only at certain times of the year and in certain cities. We were totally hooked after one afternoon and felt lucky to have caught this exhilarating only-in-Japan sporting event.

My children loved all the rituals and cultural differences. The robes and chopsticks and slippers and loos …and the strange foods we came across successfully challenged their fussiness. They will try anything now!