JAPAN TRAVEL GUIDE AND MY BLOG POSTS

Japan Travel Guide and My Stories

Basically, I’m from Japan. I left Japan in 2000 and haven’t returned much since then. I acquired Australian citizenship over 10 years ago, so I consider myself Australian. However, I still miss Japan, especially its food and religious sensitivities. I’m also an animist and have practised Zen calligraphy, in addition to studying Japanese aesthetic aspects and religion during my university years.

Japan is a unique country that blends the old with the new and full of weird stuff. If you’re planning to explore the heart of traditional Japanese, you can start from the Kansai area by flying into Kansai Airport. Alternatively, you can opt for the traditional route of arriving at Narita Airport in Tokyo and then taking a bullet train southward or flying to any destination of your choice.

Tokyo is renowned as a cosmopolitan, modern city where you can immerse yourself in anime otaku culture and experience cutting-edge technology. However, if you prefer a more traditional experience, there are numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to visit, offering a glimpse into ancient times.

My Japanese trip stories are more likely to focus on Japanese spirituality, visiting temples, and shrines, and not forgetting about the food! If you are interested in these mystical stories, or perhaps the supernatural, you will surely enjoy my tales!

Japan’s Featured Blog Posts

Basic Information

Capital and Major Cities

Tokyo (Capital and Kanto Area), Sapporo (Hokkaido), Sendai (Tohoku Area), Osaka(Kansai Area), Takamatsu (Shikoku Area), Fukuoka (Kyushu Area), Naha (Okinawa)

Language

While English is somewhat prevalent, especially in tourist hubs, having some basic Japanese phrases under your belt or carrying a phrasebook can significantly ease communication.

Currency

Japanese Yen (JPY)

Visa

90 days visa-free for many countries but it depends on their nationality. For details on countries eligible for visa-free access, please refer to the relevant information.

Religion

Buddhism and Shinto. And a bit of everything. Many Japanese people believe in supernatural phenomena, such as ghosts or animistic gods.

Climate

Japan is famous for its beautiful 4 seasons and Japan is vertically long. For example, Hokkaido is in the northeast part of Japan so you can enjoy skiing. Then Okinawa is the southeast island so it is quite warm in winter and never gets snow.

Power Plugs

Type A and B / 100 volts

Safety

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world as most people say. You hardly ever hear about things like pickpocketing or violence here. People forget their wallets or bags on trains all the time and still get them back without losing anything. But this is what you hear as a foreigner, you know, it’s always good to stay sharp and stick to your usual travel smarts, just in case. However, mostly they are very nice to white foreigners but some Japanese people don’t like them so do not be offended if you are refused to go in.

Flights to Japan

The main airports in Japan are Tokyo Narita (NRT), Tokyo Haneda (HND), and Osaka (KIX). There are numerous international flights from various countries. Additionally, Japan has domestic airports. Neither the Kyoto nor the Nara area has any airports, but access from Kansai International Airport (KIX) or domestic Osaka airports is straightforward.

Transport

The main mode of transportation in Japan is by train, as it is the easiest and quickest way to travel. The Japanese rail network is very complex and not easy to navigate; even I sometimes get lost! I recommend using Google Maps to research your route before you go. Sometimes, it may take longer to transfer between different rail companies, but with prior planning, you can find a quicker alternative. Another option is long-distance buses, which offer many routes between major cities and are often cheaper than trains.

Travel Budget

Japan used to be quite an expensive country, maybe two decades ago. Well, it’s still not as cheap as some countries in Southeast Asia. But in the last 20 years, it’s become cheaper than you might think. However, it depends on how you travel there. You can stay in a luxury hotel that costs over A$200 a night, or you can find hotels for less than A$30, sharing a bathroom. And of course, meal costs depend on your preferences, but average restaurants are about $15 or less. Much cheaper than Sydney, for sure.

Best Time to Travel

Japan has four seasons, each with significant features, so you can enjoy visiting anytime. However, I must say, if you do not tolerate torrents of humidity and hot, sticky weather, you may want to avoid the rainy season or summer. The timing of your trip all depends on what you want to do.

Spring:

Spring is one of the most popular seasons to visit for Sakura (cherry blossoms). It’s magnificent to see these little pink flowers bloom. However, Sakura blooms at different times across the country due to varying climates, starting from the south and moving northward. You can check the approximate dates or weeks on some websites. Nowadays, it’s blooming earlier due to global warming.

Summer:

Many people say Japanese summer is not pleasant to visit. Late June to early August is the rainy season. The combination of humidity and high temperatures is killer for some people. Late August or sometimes early July brings typhoons from the south. However, there are so many ‘matsuri’ (festivals) in Japan, so you can still enjoy some interesting events. Personally, I like summer. It brings back childhood ‘matsuri’ memories and spending time on the beach in the Shonan area.

Autumn:

Another best time to visit is autumn. I visited twice, and both times my husband and others kept telling me how stunning the colours of the leaves were. Especially, Japanese maples are absolutely lovely and stunningly beautiful! As always, you can enjoy these autumn colours all around Japan in different time frames.

Winter:

Nowadays, probably for the last couple of decades, skiing in Japan has become more popular for foreigners, especially in Hokkaido. When I was young, I used to go skiing in winter. Driving through the snowfalls and spending time with friends in the cabins were great memories of the winter season. And you can see the world-famous monkeys in the onsen (hot springs).

Exploring Japanese Culture

Religions: Buddism and Shinto

Japanese religious aspects are indeed quite unique and intriguing. Shinto, the primal ancient belief system, is rooted in animism, while Buddhism, originating from China, has been developed over many centuries in a distinctively Japanese manner. However, what’s particularly interesting is that if you were to ask many Japanese people whether they identify as Buddhist or Shintoist, some might respond with ‘both’ or ‘neither.’ This phenomenon may seem odd, considering that people often visit shrines and temples for various occasions, yet still claim to be atheists. Allow me to delve into this further.

Japanese traditional religious beliefs are based on two major religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. Both religions are part of Japanese people’s everyday life from birth to death and throughout the year at events such as festivals and holidays. Shintoism is the fundamental ancient belief in Japan, and in the mid-6th century, Buddhism arrived from China. Both religions had been united and harmonised for many centuries until the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese modernist government took a different direction towards the end of World War II. The Meiji government decided to separate Shinto and Buddhism (which were deeply connected to Samurai culture) for political purposes, funding more Shinto shrines rather than Buddhist temples. However, Shinto and Buddhism were deeply connected and harmonised for centuries, so they still remain the same way in some places, such as Shinto shrines being on the same properties as Buddhist temples.

Shinto:

Shinto is Japan’s oldest belief system, rooted in nature worship (animism) as well as the worship of heroes or guardian spirits to maintain harmony. Shrines (神社, jinja) are places of worship and prayer for the Kami (Shinto gods). Sacred objects representing the gods for worship are placed in the innermost chamber of the shrine. Sometimes, these objects are prohibited from being seen by anyone except the priest, and sometimes even the priests are not allowed to see them. However, due to the animistic nature of Shinto, gods are sometimes mountains, rivers, lakes, rocks, or trees.

Japanese people respect and visit shrines to pray for good fortune or good health, especially during the New Year and other special events in their lives. Furthermore, there are numerous festivals held throughout Japan to worship Shinto gods year-round.

Buddhism:

Japanese Buddhism is a bit different from its Chinese origin. Fundamental beliefs are the same, but in some group practices, there are more features resembling Shintoism. As I explained above, it seems to be unique and significantly developed in its own way. However, it’s not only Japan; other countries are slightly different from the origin anyway. Japanese Buddhism emerged in the mid-6th century and was adopted into the culture for centuries, leading to the creation of significant cultural features such as Zen, the tea ceremony, Samurai spirits, etc. It remains connected to Japanese people’s everyday life.

Why Japanese People Say They Are Atheists

In Japan, there are tons of events throughout the year, as I mentioned. People have been living in the moment every day since they were born. Some of my Japanese friends are recognised as just “culture,” not religion. However, in Western culture, going to temples or shrines is associated with religious beliefs. Japanese people may not realize or recognise that their culture is religiously based and involves beliefs. It’s too close to the social norm for them to see it. It’s odd, isn’t it?

Japanese Art and Traditions

Matsuri (festivals):

Let me share my childhood memories here: when I was about primary school age, maybe around 9 or 10 years old, my father took me to a festival and bought a chick (all the chicks were roosters for sale). I played with him all day. The next day, I found him dead. He was probably exhausted because of me (so sorry, chick). I was so sad and cried. My older brother, who was 12 years older than me, took me to the same vendor and bought me another one. Then, my mother took me there and bought me one too. And my father bought me one as well. I didn’t tell them I already had one. My parents owned some restaurants and sometimes worked separately, so we didn’t see each other much, and they didn’t really know what I was up to. Anyway, I took care of these chicks very well, and then they grew into roosters hahaha. You know what happened next? They started to crow… very early in the morning…

All my chicks were healthy, well-fed by me, and crowing every single morning. We were living downstairs in a small compound. Later, my mother told me there were tons of complaints about these lovely roosters. One afternoon, I got home and found all of my roosters were gone! I ran to the restaurant where my dad was working as a chef, and he told me, ‘A dog attacked them and took them all!!’ I was so sad and cried, but I was also relieved that I could sleep in nicely. I’m sure there were a lot of specials at my parents’ restaurants in the next few days: ‘Today’s chicken dishes!’

The Matsuri festival season is one of my favourite times of the year in Japan, mostly in summer but sometimes in early autumn as well. It is associated with my childhood memories, not only the story mentioned above. Most Matsuri are associated with Shinto tradition, celebrating their gods and annually held as seasonal or historical events. The festivals sometimes continue for a few days. You can see a lot of different types of vendors and shops to explore food or ornaments during the events. Kids are so excited to go and buy things, and not only kids, but adults also enjoy these events.

During these Japanese festivals, traditions continue to be upheld, and the local shrines’ gods and deities are carried around the local town by people. At the beginning of the festival, the Kami are ritually asked to get on the mikoshi (palanquins) by the priests. Then some people say the mikoshi are heavier than before. That’s a very interesting story to hear.

Tea Ceremony:

When I was travelling with my husband alone for his 50th birthday present from me in Kyoto. I booked a Japanese tea master lady (sorry, I forgot her name!). It was set in the traditional way, and we had to sit kneeling on a tatami mat. I could do that for a while, but not for a long time. However, my husband… poor thing, he couldn’t do it for even one second! He sounded terrified to see the setting, excited to get the first real experience, but at the same time, looked terrified. He had to sit in a cross-legged position, which is actually considered rude in a formal manner in Japan.

So my husband knew it was as rude as sitting in a cross-legged position, but there was no other way to do it (haha, sorry, I was laughing quite hard with him, definitely not at him). While we were waiting for the moment of terror, the lady entered in a very traditional manner for the tea ceremony. She was so shocked to see my husband’s cross-legged position; I could see from her face that she was not happy at all. My husband instantly apologized for his sitting position, but she remained unhappy. Hahaha. Sorry, this still makes me laugh about how stubborn she was, or rather, it was the traditional Japanese “way” idea, a “has to be that way” idea. Also, she wasn’t happy with me laughing so hard either (hahaha). Anyway, he explained why, and finally, she offered him a small chair to sit on. However, it was a funny and excellent experience for us; my husband had the best matcha tea he had ever tasted, and he really wants to go back there too. Not sure if she wants us back, though, haha.

Japanese tea ceremony (茶道, sadō or chadō) is a world-famous tradition based on Wabi Sabi philosophy. The fundamental meaning of Sado is the Japanese “Way (dō)” idea, which means “the way of tea.” It’s an almost ritualistic practice of preparing and drinking tea in a traditional tearoom in a certain manner. It was developed particularly in Samurai culture and spread to the common people in the Edo period.

Nowadays, the tea ceremony is mostly practised as a hobby but is still taken very seriously. My husband and I participated many years ago with a lady teaching and explaining to us in very fluent English in Kyoto. There are places where tourists can experience it. Some tea ceremonies are more casual than the traditional way, but you can also enjoy them formally and authentically through various organisations. Especially in Kyoto, you can find many different types of tea ceremonies. I once participated in one led by a Canadian guy in Kyoto with my friend.

I’ve found a photo of a small chair that the tea master lady asked my husband to sit on. Hahaha.

Traditional Theatre (Kabuki):

My thoughts on Kabuki revolve around its long tradition and unique cultural system. The Kabuki world is closely guarded by Japanese society across generations. For example, it’s considered normal to have affairs with geiko (gaisha) in Kyoto, and some Kabuki actors still have children outside of their marriage, a practice that was prevalent during the Edo period and continues today. Kabuki actors’ wives often take on the role of their husbands’ managers, supporting them daily and engaging with supporters or sponsors year-round. This dynamic can result in considerable stress, compounded by the patriarchal nature of society. However, Kabuki remains a cherished Japanese tradition, and I hope it continues to thrive, preserving Japan’s unique cultural heritage.

Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a Japanese traditional play performed in theatres. It was established during the Edo Period (1603-1868). While there are other types of theatre plays such as No and Bunraku, Kabuki was specifically developed by Edo merchant people, alongside art forms like Ukiyoe (woodblock prints). Kabuki has been recognised as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

You can attend Kabuki performances in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, and some other towns featuring local versions. These days, Kabuki is more accessible, and you can enjoy selected seats in a Western-style setting. The performance is usually divided into two or three segments. Tickets are usually sold per segment, and sometimes they are also available per act. The tickets cost around 2,000 yen for a single act, then 3,000 – 25,000 yen for an entire segment, depending on the seat levels.

Contemporary Art:

Japanese contemporary art is always unique; some artists create a combination of tradition and innovation. Their works are exhibited in museums or featured in art festivals. Though I haven’t visited yet, the Seto Inland Sea region has become renowned for contemporary art events. Situated between Okayama and Kagawa, the Seto Inland Sea boasts a magnificent art scene with numerous contemporary art sites in Japan.

The art movement in the region began in the 1990s with the initiative of the Benesse Corporation, which established museums and initiated art projects on Naoshima Island. Over time, additional museums were constructed on Naoshima and neighbouring islands. The influence of this art has expanded to encompass a dozen islands in the Seto Inland Sea, especially after the Setouchi Triennale.

Manga and Anime:

Okay, manga (Japanese-style comics) and anime are now recognised as part of Japanese culture. Manga has been popular for many years, and the term ‘Otaku’ was coined during the mid-1900s. When I was school-age, I used to read a lot, but in Japan, these are not only for kids; adults also read and watch anime a lot, really a lot, and it’s increasingly spreading internationally. Some manga series have become popular and produced anime (アニメ, animation) series. Good examples include ‘Dragon Ball’, ‘Pokémon’, and ‘Akira’. Then the biggest one is Studio Ghibli; my favourite is ‘Spirited Away’.

However, it’s become more controversial because the content is sometimes very inappropriate for young viewers, and some countries prohibit or treat it as child pornography. If you want to experience Otaku or Japanese typical anime manga culture, I recommend going to Akihabara in Tokyo; you will see a lot there!

Onsen (Hot Spring):

OK, Onsen. I have a tattoo on my back. When I decided to get one, I carefully considered visiting onsens. As many people worldwide know, tattoos are generally prohibited in public onsen in Japan. This is because tattoos are still associated with Japanese gangs, known as the yakuza. Consequently, many places, including public onsen, pools, and beaches, prohibit individuals with tattoos from entering. However, nowadays, there are many young Japanese individuals and foreigners with numerous tattoos. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to enforce a blanket prohibition on tattoos, especially considering the importance of tourism. This issue sparks occasional debates within local communities. Nevertheless, in smaller ryokans, it may be more acceptable to have tattoos. As foreigners, there is often more leeway, but it’s essential to be aware that some individuals, particularly those who are very conservative, may still object. Despite my husband having two tattoos, he has been able to enter onsens wherever he goes.

Anyhow, this is ne of the things I miss most about Japan. As many people know, Onsen is highly popular across Japan and volcanic country Japan, with every region having Onsen spots and Onsen towns. Sometimes, local councils operate public ones as well, with very little or even no charge.

Japanese Onsen come in many different types, with various minerals dissolved in the hot water beneath the earth’s surface. It is said that these different minerals provide healing or offer health benefits. Onsen culture has been around for many centuries, and Japanese people take it very seriously, enjoying relaxed bodies and minds. There are so many Onsen Ryokans, and I miss them a lot. I highly recommend experiencing them more than once while you are staying in Japan. They are awesome.

What You Must Know Before Going To Japan

Now, do you want to travel to Japan? Before you embark on your journey, there are several essential aspects to consider for a hassle-free experience, in addition to those mentioned above.

  1. Language: While English is somewhat prevalent, especially in tourist hubs, having some basic Japanese phrases under your belt or carrying a phrasebook can significantly ease communication. Sometimes they wave their hands in front of their face to avoid having a conversation in English. They may not speak English and might feel intimidated, so try not to take offence. And you may come across some really funny English, possibly generated by old versions of Google Translate or lost in translation. Just have fun! I do.
  2. Customs and Etiquette: Japanese culture places a strong emphasis on respect and politeness. Familiarise yourself with customs like bowing and removing shoes indoors to navigate social interactions smoothly. And sometimes, you may come across notes written like ‘no foreigners in this shop.’ If you see one, it’s best to avoid trying to enter.
  3. Cash Usage: While credit cards are gaining popularity, cash remains king in many establishments, particularly in rural areas. Ensure you have enough yen on hand, especially when venturing off the beaten path. Also, be aware that ATMs in Japan do not operate 24/7. I know, it’s surprising, right? In a big cosmopolitan country like Japan, not all ATMs are available around the clock. However, some convenience stores offer 24/7 access with fees.
  4. Transportation: Japan boasts an efficient public transport network comprising trains, subways, and buses. Consider investing in a Japan Rail Pass for intercity travel, offering substantial savings.

Japan is truly a unique country, one of the best places to visit nowadays. It’s affordable, the people are friendly, it’s safe, and the food is delicious. Enjoy your stay there as if you’re in a wonderland or a parallel world!

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