I remember the day my little sister was born (1986), the day I learned to tie my own shoes (1988) and I remember the day I told myself, “I’m going to go to Japan!” (1989). Mixed in with all my earliest memories, Japan has always been there so when the day actually came and our plane touched down on that tarmac...I felt like I was waiting my whole life for this moment! After a lifetime of build-up and anticipation, would Japan let me down? Go grab yourself a snack and settle in as I expose what resources we used, the experiences we had and what 22 days in amazing Japan actually cost* us:
Ready? Here we go!
*Note: During the time of our visit, 1 US Dollar = 120.04 Japanese Yen
Dates Visited: March 4, 2015 - March 26, 2015 (22 days)
TOKYO (12 days)
Tokyo is the world's most populated city, and being city people, this is our version of heaven. Tokyo has got it all. There are endless things to see and do here with it's incredible food, robots and pop culture Tokyo simultaneously straddles the line between the beautiful and bizarre.
Where we stayed: For this whole trip, we booked with either Airbnb or Agoda. Through our research, we found that most hostel beds in Tokyo can run anywhere from $20-$25 a night per bed and since we prefer the privacy of our own place over dorm rooms anyway, it made sense to just rent an apartment or private room since we're a couple. All our accommodations in Tokyo were found through Airbnb.
The Tokyo Experience:
OUR TOKYO VIDEOS:
KYOTO (4 DAYS)
The former capital of Imperial Japan for over a thousand years, Kyoto is known as the the "City of Ten Thousand Shrines." Here, you will get your fill of Japanese traditions, shinto shrines and beautiful gardens. Sadly, we didn't connect with Kyoto as much as we figured we would because we were still running on the sensory overload high of Tokyo and wanted more (Kyoto being way more chill). Oh... and then I went to the hospital which took some wind out of our sails. All in all, it just wasn't our thing, but I'm glad we gave it a shot and I encourage you to do the same as it's beauty and history cannot be denied.
Where we stayed: We stayed in the mixed dorms of Shiori-an Guesthouse and it was very clean, comfortable, quiet and only a short walk from the Kyoto Station. The staff, especially the front desk (Hi Hiroshi!) helped me find a hospital with an English speaking doctor and gave me lots of care and attention (see video below to see what happened). If we go back to Kyoto, we'd easily stay here again. Booked through Agoda.
The Kyoto Experience:
OUR KYOTO VIDEO:
OSAKA (4 DAYS)
A large port city known for its humor, nightlife and food. we loved this place so much that we regretted staying in Kyoto for so long and wish we spent more time here. As per usual, our budget and last minute planning (this method works better in S.E. Asia) meant that we would be staying 45 minutes outside of the the city. In the end, this all worked out for the best since we got to experience what life was really like in a Japanese suburb.
Where we stayed: The very last station on the Hankyu Senri Railway Line is a little neighborhood called Kita-senri. Here, we got a whole apartment to ourselves so it was great to stretch out and cook our own meals. At times it felt like we were the the only ones in the entire complex as our Japanese neighbors were so quiet! Needless to say, we got the best nights sleep in this country. Also, this place in particular was our favorite accommodation throughout the whole trip and we even tried to extend our stay, but sadly it was booked up and we were forced to move on. For a tour of our apartment - see our video here
Booked through Airbnb
The Osaka Experience:
OUR OSAKA VIDEO:
HIROSHIMA (2 DAYS)
As Americans, we felt it was important for us to come here, pay our respects and educate ourselves on the events leading up to and after August 6th, 1945. As the sight of the first atomic bombing that completely obliterated this city and killed thousands in an instant, I'm not sure what we expected prior to arriving but we were surprised to discover a quaint city with the most beautiful parks we've ever seen.
Where we stayed: A hotel! We actually stayed at a hotel for the first time in ages. We chose this place based on the reviews and location to the Peace Memorial Museum since we knew we'd only be here a couple of days and wanted to maximize our time. There was a breakfast buffet included in the price, the bed was soft, we caught up on laundry and there is a cablecar that runs right outside the hotel so it was easy to get around. Booked through Agoda.
The Hiroshima Experience:
OUR HIROSHIMA VIDEO:
Getting Around Japan:
Japan has an amazing network of punctual subways, buses, and bullet trains that criss-cross the entire country so logistically speaking, it was a breeze to get around and by far the most piece of cake place we've travelled to so far. The only downside is that you WILL get lost in the labyrinth of underground stations (we did daily), but everyone is extremely helpful and there's lots of 'information booths' dotted all around so every outing becomes a quest until you find your way around.
If going by rail to a city far away (say Hiroshima to Tokyo), try to reserve your seat beforehand as we found ourselves standing with our backpacks on for 2.5 hours on the train. No bueno.
Should you buy a JR Rail pass?
It depends. Where do you want to go?
According to Japan Experience, the JR pass is not worth buying in 3 scenarios:
(1) if you are thinking about traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto and mostly staying in these two cities. It will cost more than a Tokyo to Kyoto one-way ticket. Also, the JR Pass cannot be used once in the city, except for the Yamanote line in Tokyo. Lastly, from Kyoto, you can go to Nara or Osaka with rail lines other than the JR for a reasonable price.
(2) if you stay in Tokyo or Kyoto during your stay, because a local pass that can be bought there is more economical
(3) if you stay in a region (Hokkaido, Kyushu) the local Passes sold there are more economical.
We found these scenarios be true in our own experience as we envisioned saving $150+ with our passes, but found that in Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima that we walked almost everywhere and that the JR passes are unusable on the subways and can really limit where you go since all the places we wanted to go to where off the JR rail lines. We did the math afterwards and we only saved $20 based on our itinerary. To make the pass worth it, you'll need to pack in more places than we did, but know that the quicker you move, the more expensive everything else will become.
Saving $20 was still worth it to us, but admittedly we could spend all 22 days in Tokyo or Osaka and use it as a base to take other non-JR lines for day trips and be totally satisfied with that. We felt we moved too quickly in Japan because we were too excited to be there, but Japan is a place to be explored slowly. Basically, you just have to decide if moving around every few days and spending hours in transit is worth it it to you since it shaves off time from your overall trip. Just something to consider before shelling so much money on a JR pass
I will have to say though, with you JR passes I loved it when we'd flash our pass to the station attendants on the JR lines and then we'd be able to line-jump and go right on through like a celebrity in a club. That was fun and saved us time in that sense.
But, here's a hack... if you want to know how much a railway ticket costs ahead of time, just go to Hyperdia and input the cities you're wanting to go to and then use that information to see if buying a JR pass is right for you.
Japanese is such a beautiful language and I was so excited to hear it all around me as well as test out the very few phrases and numbers I know in real life scenarios. English is widely spoken, especially in the major cities we were in so we were always able to communicate our needs and nothing ever got... Lost in Translation (You knew I had to use that reference somewhere in here!). When we did run into someone that didn't speak English, we just do what we always do and use our hands, body language or have the Kanji of the place we're looking for on and it all worked out. Prior to going to Japan, we suggest at least learning "Hello", "Thank you" and "Delicious!" at a bare minimum. Also, counting in Japanese is super fun and it even came in handy a few times!
The only time we used plastic here was to get Yen out of an ATM and book accommodations online. Everything else was done in the local currency (Yen). If you don't have a bank that refunds your ATM transaction fees at the end of the month like us (Go, Charles Schwab!) then to combat the ATM and conversion fees, we suggest taking out a large amount of Yen so you don't have to visit the ATM as often. Strangely, ATM's that accept foreign cards are not as wide-spread in Japan as other countries which surprised us, but if you find a 7-11, they'll always have an ATM there you can use.
The best meals of our entire lives were consumed in this country. We're not the most adventurous eaters, or consider ourselves”foodies" but we know good value when we eat it. Everything was made with such precision and care that even the way it was cut and presented had bearing on just how yummy it was. Also, for the first time in ages we didn’t have that nagging fear of getting food poisoning (going on 3x for me since 2013!) or some other gut-wrenching, adventure-killing sickness since everything was clean and sanitized.
In the spirit of keeping things 100 with you, I have to admit that we committed the foodie sin of not having any sushi while in Japan, but when we discovered the world of Izakayas (Japanese pubs with small tapas style eats) it was all over from there and we were hooked.
You know what else is really good? The egg-salad sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies at 7-11. Told ya we weren’t foodies!
So just point, eat and be merry.
General Observations, Tips, Rants, and things that I didn't want to make a special category for:
Trigger Warning: If you’re a 1) staunch Nationalist or someone who 2) blindly loves Japan but actually hasn’t been there or you’re someone who 3) has been there but still never experienced the following like we did, then some of these statements may hurt your special feelings. We here at Because We Camp believe that no place is perfect so we pride ourselves on providing the public with our full experiences (good and bad) in the hopes that they will travel to Japan in order to form their own opinions based on their own life experiences. Because that’s how real life works. Ass.
If the idea of traveling to an Asian country scares you, then Japan is the shallow end of the pool. It's culturally different enough to be amazing and interesting, but also familiar enough to a western country so as to not give you Culture Shock.
The upside: The people are so sweet!
The downside: The people are so sweet! What I mean by that is that their sweet nature makes them extremely reserved and more apt to mind their own business. This sounds like normal protocol, but after spending 2 years in Asia people were always curious about us, or just came up to us to say “hello” which always led to some sort of cultural exchange or insight. Here in Japan? Not so much. We felt like we were on an island while literally being on an island! There were a few exceptions of course and the Japanese people always went out of their way to help us when we looked lost or asked questions (like I said, incredibly friendly!) but the exchanges never went any further than a few pleasantries and nothing new was learned or no new friend gained. As you may have noticed if you’ve already watched our 5 part 'Exploring Japan' YouTube series you've noticed that the camera is almost always on us. This was not by choice.
Not really a budget friendly destination (yet) but sites like Airbnb are just starting to catch on. It’s a long read, but this is a fascinating NY Times article on Airbnb’s in Japan and gives you great insight into the cultural changes coming with the 2020 Olympics.
The toilets. Oh. My. God. If there was some kind of bathroom Olympic event in 2020 then Japan would bring home the gold! I can't begin to tell you how good it felt to sit on a heated toilet seat everywhere we went (especially in March) and I had so much fun with all bidet gadgets. My favorite button was the one you press so that the sounds of birds chirping covered up any "unlady-like" noises. Nice touch, Japan! Going to the bathroom here was always an experience and since I’m too old to collect Pokemon, next time I’m just going to drink water non-stop and then collect all the toilets instead!
No tipping. When you tip in Japan it’s the equivalent of saying, “Aww, you look like you could really use this you sad, pathetic person.”*throws shiny new quarter at their forehead* it’s a giant fuck you to the worker and it’s seen as insulting. Needless to say, we really loved this and hope this attitude catches on everywhere since we feel that our current tipping culture is way out of control and shouldn’t ever involve the customer beyond the price of the product or service. [end rant]
No filming anything, anywhere at anytime! I’m exaggerating (a bit) but as vloggers, this was a serious problem in Japan. We've never been more hassled, followed around and asked to stop filming than in this country. For example, there were temples in Kyoto that didn't allow photography. Ok, no problem but when we got there, there were signs scattered throughout the shrine saying that they inspect your camera at the end and will take it from you if you get caught taking photos! Ooooook. It's their temple and their rules, but we came to that temple in the first place because of the many printed brochures around town showing us photos of the shrine. Even when we purchased our entrance fee, the ticket itself had photos of the shrine on it! Sooooooo, it's sacred and forbidden to take photos except for that one day you had someone come in for marketing purposes??! Total BS. We also received lots of strange reactions which we’re used to but we always chalk that up to camera gear or beard curiosity, especially when we have the dead kitten mounted onto it (The camera, not Noah). We usually smile and show the interested person what we’re filming and everyone walks away learning a little more about whatever. But… this is Japan! It’s the home of Canon which happens to be our camera brand and the worldwide leader in electronics and all things gadgetry so we're not sure why we received this look as often as we did. There was also this time when we were in the middle of Shinjuku time-lapsing a crowd outside when an entire family (man, woman 2.5 kids) stopped in mid-walk and just stare at us. Then, they made a loop to come back around and stare at us some more. It was so bizarre! We lost sight of them in the crowd for awhile so we figured they left but we were so surprised when we saw them fight their way upstream from the crowd just to give us side-eye again. Did they go and tell someone what we were doing and then make sure we didn’t leave until “help” arrived? That’s the feeling we got anyways and all our smiles and offers to show them what we were doing was met with more disapproving stares. Maybe Noah’s beard looked extra terroristy the month we visited but with smiley me by his side, we usually can disarm (pun intended) any misunderstandings. These are just a few the many “No filming!!!” scenarios that didn’t make any sense to us in a place so helplessly photogenic. If we weren’t vloggers our panties probably wouldn’t be in such a twist about this… but we are, and they were.
No littering. Though the streets are clean and litter-free, trashcans are super hard to come by. We've spent hours walking around Tokyo carrying around bags of our own empty bottles and wrappers in the hopes of coming across a trashcan outside somewhere in that megatropolis. Nope! We waited until we got back to our apartment to throw away our trash but was waiting for us was actual instructions on how to throw away said trash. To be more specific, it was an insane, 20 page, "Trash collection and Recycle Guides" document that involves 3 different trash collection days (each day requires a specific sort of trash) and very detailed rules and schedules. It is so Japanese!
The Japanese can be really sloppy drunks. Picture him now: It’s 7am and an industrious, clean-cut professional businessman passes you on the street. Ok, now realize that this is only half of the story as this same man you’re picturing by day, becomes a window-licking drunkard by night. This image really messed with my mind since these well-dressed men were shitting all over the concept of business wear and what it stands for. Getting lit while wearing jeans is something I can wrap my head around, but seeing men in suits giggling and using each others ties to hold themselves up was a visual I was not prepared for. I’ve seen lots of girls in this sloppy state just before they start crying and calling out, “Karen!? Have you seen Karen!?” but now I can add to my life’s checklist: seeing a Japanese man in a suit puke up his liquid dinner on the train and then use his tie as a napkin. They work hard, they play harder.
The food at the 7-11's are amazing and were a lifesaver for our wallet. Also, Japan has a heated section (next to the refrigerated section) for beverages like coffee and teas that come in a can so that you can actually drink it the way it was intended. I was blown away by how clever that was but also equally ashamed that we don’t have this in the states. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain
Never get between a Japanese person and their collectibles. Imagine going for a leisurely stroll in the woods when all of a sudden you see a baby cub. You exclaim, “How cute!” and then you turn around and realize that mama bear is charging towards you. We know what that feels like now. We had an amazing time at the Anime 2015 convention but things got serious and elbows started to fly we we found ourselves standing in front of a booth that had a limited supply of anime figurines.
Smoking is allowed in lots of bars and restaurants. As a non-smoker, this sucked as we’d be chowing down on some beef noodles and the guy next to me lights one up and blows the smoke in my direction. Whatever the special of the day is, just add “nicotine-infused” to the front of it and that’s your meal.
Xenophobia. This exists everywhere in the world but we experienced a little taste of it while on packed trains. Old women with canes and heavy groceries chose to stand up on shaky 45 minute commuter train if it meant that the only open seat was the one next to us. At first I thought nothing of it and instinctively did a “sniff test” but after the 4th time this happened in a different city it was clear that it wasn’t an odor problem, it was an outsider one.
Rules and traditions are strictly enforced. No shoes inside, no jay-walking, ect. We both love and hate this simultaneously because as Americans we value freedom (as long as it doesn’t hurt others) over respect so if it’s midnight at a car-less crosswalk we don’t see the harm in not waiting and we don’t care what you think about us if we’re seen breaking a rule. But in Japan, respect is more valued over personal freedom so they’re going to wait at that crosswalk and respect the rule set in place. When an entire country subscribes to this outlook, you can see the benefits of it all around you in the spotless cities, the people who take pride in their jobs (bus drivers wearing white gloves), the sense of order in a place that could easily collapse into chaos if everyone had the “gimme gimme” attitude. It works, it’s a beautiful and refreshing thing but we could see how it might drive us a little crazy some days.
If you're big on history and humor but short on time, here is a hilarious 9:00 video on the complete history of Japan. Watch it.
Beware: Japan will call you back to her. We’re currently saving up to travel back there again in 2017 and answer her siren song. We can’t get enough and if you go, you will have hear the song as well.
So how much did 22 days in Japan cost us?
Total price spent including 14 day JR passes = $3,477 usd / or $1,739 per person / or $79.00 a day
So that's it. That's been our Japan journey and we've hardly even scratched the surface of this incredible country. This place has stolen our hearts and we're never going to ask for it back. It belongs to Japan now and we're OK with that.