I intended to write these posts the weekend we arrived home last July, before the sights, sounds and smells (I can still pinpoint, but not describe, the smell of a Japanese subway station) became compressed by all the work/life stuff that demanded attention as soon as we landed in London.
Those memories become even harder to hang on to when you’re weighed down by the jet lagged fogginess that hovers for the first few days, made worse by the humidity (July is the tail end of the rainy season) and aggressive hum of cicadas – only briefly lifting when I came face to face with a Giant Hornet the size of my fist on a hike.
But, in a nutshell, Japan is the most fascinating, conflicting, confusing yet strangely comforting place I’ve visited; all at once impossibly modern and rigidly archaic. I can’t wait to go back.
(Yep, that’s 100% a photo of the toilet buttons…be careful which one you press.)
We flew with Lufthansa from London via Munich to Tokyo Haneda, with a travel time of about 15hrs. If, like us, your budget stipulates an indirect economy flight, it’s a good choice for comfort and minimal risk of being stranded in an obscure airport – good news for not-so-calm flyers like me. But I’d recommend comparing prices on SkyScanner.
A few tips…
Exchange currency before you go.
An obvious tip for some, but I rarely bother for the ‘card-culture’ European countries I visit most. Taking out cash in Japan can be tricky – ATMs tend to be limited to post offices and 7 Elevens and some international cards aren’t accepted. Japan is a safe place to carry cash and it’s much easier to have Yen available…particularly a few ¥100 ready to buy cold Royal Milk Tea (the withdrawals are real) or ramen from a vending machine at every given opportunity.
Get a portable WiFi device.
Despite being a hub of technology, there’s still not a huge free WiFi culture in Japan. Where street signs are only in kanji, having free and easy access to Google maps will make life much easier. CityMapper also has a (relatively new) Tokyo setting. We hired a device from Global Advanced Communications and just popped it in the post on our way back to the airport.
Learn a little Japanese.
English is taught and spoken widely (and is getting a bit of a push pre-2020 Tokyo Olympics), but it’s helpful to learn a bit of Japanese before you travel. I really lack confidence with languages, but you’ll be amazed how far you can get with ‘arigato gozaimasu’ (thank you very much) and a smile in Japan. Some light reading on general etiquette is a must too, particularly if you’re visiting temples.
Buy a JR pass before you travel.
Japan’s rail network is incredible – fast, reliable and air conditioned. The JR pass can only be bought outside of Japan and gives visitors access to almost all JR lines across the islands. It’s a bit of a hefty expense to begin with, but gives you complete freedom. A couple of trips on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and you’ll have pretty much recouped your money.
The humidity and heat were a killer and, if you’re visiting in summer, don’t even think about packing anything but cotton or silk. Regardless of the season, I’d suggest packing your favourite trainers. We clocked up almost 20km per day during our trip and walking is one of the best ways to see as much as possible.
For most of our visit, we stayed in Yokohama with my boyfriend’s brother and sister-in-law who very kindly put us up, translated emails during some Typhoon disruption (more on that later), advised us on what to see, do and eat.
Yokohama is about 30-40 minutes from Tokyo city centre on train lines included in the JR pass and accommodation can be a little cheaper than Tokyo, so it’s worth bearing in mind as an alternative.
Where to go
We travelled into Tokyo most days, but there’s plenty to see in and around Yokohama too (including a cup noodle museum…but we gave that a miss). It’s also a bit more chilled than Tokyo, so spending some time around Yokohama city centre is a pretty good way to get acclimatised. Even seemingly normal activities like bowling become a unique experience in Japan.
Though not *technically* in Yokohama, Kamakura is a short trip south and home to numerous Shinto shrines, Zen temples and a giant Buddha. The main shopping street is worth a visit for ceramics, fabrics and traditional Japanese sweets and crackers, but we spent most time around the Kenchoji temple before hiking up into the hills behind it for amazing views over the entire temple grounds. From certain perspectives there are no modern buildings in sight, so it’s incredibly easy to imagine ‘Old Japan’.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around these peaceful gardens, built by a silk trader and tea ceremony enthusiast at the turn of the 20th century. The ridiculously elegant, sprawling grounds made a pretty good crash course in traditional architecture and horticultural design.
Where to eat
As I expected, Japan is incredible for food – but probably a nightmare for fussy eaters. A lot of our meals were on the move, onigiri (¥100/53p) and ice cold green tea from the local supermarket make a great breakfast, but here’s a few places we liked in and around Yokohama.
This basic, cheap but tasty chain can be found in most cities and became a favourite for quick, easy meals. It’s a particular haunt for gamer boys who’ve emerged from neighbouring arcades to down a bowl of gyūdon before heading back to hit a high score. Their signature dish is a really filling ‘beef bowl’ on steamed rice which comes in at about £3.
Part of a chain of conveyor belt sushi restaurants, Mutenkurazushi was really busy when we visited and understandably so – it’s family friendly (read: unfancy), all of the plates are ¥100 and the seared salmon nigiri is delicious.
Din Tai Fung
We paid a visit to the Yokohama branch of this Taiwanese dim sum place a visit at the end of our trip. It’s hidden away on the top floor of the Takashimaya department store and serves amazing Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). Considering the Taipei branch has a Michelin star, it’s also really reasonable.